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It Isn't America's Cup Any Longer
Sarah Pileggi
October 03, 1983
Challenger Australia II staged a dramatic comeback to defeat Liberty and break the U.S.'s 132-year winning streak
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October 03, 1983

It Isn't America's Cup Any Longer

Challenger Australia II staged a dramatic comeback to defeat Liberty and break the U.S.'s 132-year winning streak

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Remember how it was when the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians at the 1980 Olympics and Americans who had never even seen a hockey game and who had given up saluting the flag after fifth grade were swept up overnight on a tidal wave of patriotic fervor? Multiply that ardor a hundredfold and you'll have some idea of what winning the America's Cup Monday meant to Australians. Forget the World Series and the Super Bowl. Those are games. This was history and nationhood and destiny all riding on the backs of 11 men and on designer Ben Lexcen's flying machine, Australia II.

No matter how Skipper John Bertrand and his crew had gone about winning the Cup, they'd have been heroes forever-more Down Under. But the fact that they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the best-of-seven series at 3-3 and then came back on Monday from way behind after the first four legs of one of the most thrilling yacht races ever sailed to beat Liberty and Dennis Conner, the best the U.S. had to offer, made them heroes to the world.

The day of the Race of the Century began for Australia II just as almost every day had for the last three months. The white-hulled 12-meter was lowered from her hoist, a towline from her tender, Black Swan, was attached to her bow, and as she slid from her berth at Newport Offshore boatyard, the amplified sound of the band Men at Work drifted back toward shore: "I come from a land Down Under/Where women glow and men plunder/Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder/You better run, you better take cover." Then the Aussies went off to sea.

Out on the 24.3-mile course the wind, which had been blowing at barely six knots from the southwest for most of the morning, turned shifty and the first attempt to start the race as scheduled at 12:10 p.m. had to be abandoned. But at 1:05, with an eight-knot southwesterly breeze established, the chase was on. Liberty won the start by eight seconds, giving Bertrand the left side of the line. The boats started off upwind on opposite tacks, each skipper gambling that his side was favored. Conner was the first to tack back toward the center, and a minute later Bertrand did the same. Then Conner tacked away again, an indication that he was already behind. At the first crossing, 16 minutes up the course, Australia II was ahead by three or four lengths. The boats crossed again, Australia II still ahead, but this time by a little less. Conner had thrown a fake tack at Bertrand and the Aussie had fallen for it, tacking needlessly and losing about a length in the process. Perhaps shaken, Bertrand kept going toward the right side of the course, leaving Liberty uncovered for an inexplicably long time, considering that his boat is capable of tacking like a ballerina. Then the wind gods must have smiled on Conner. At the third crossing the two boats were dead even, but at the fourth Liberty was ahead. Bertrand had made two mistakes on this first leg and as a result, Liberty led by 29 seconds at the windward mark. The explosion of horns and sirens from her supporters signaled their assurance that the race was already won and that the remaining 20-odd miles were merely a formality.

Liberty kept Australia II on her stern for the next three legs, even gaining 34 seconds on the second windward leg, on which both boats played the wind shifts. Conner began the fifth leg with a 57-second advantage, but made a serious mistake as the boats headed downwind. Though Liberty was already at a disadvantage because of her greater weight—some 3,000 pounds—Conner jibed onto port tack, and instead of trying to stay between Australia II and the mark, as would be expected under the circumstances, he allowed his rival to sail off by herself on starboard. It was a disastrous decision. The Australians discovered a stronger breeze, and by the time the two boats jibed back toward each other after 3.5 miles of the 4.5-mile leg, Australia II had gained substantially. And when the two boats actually crossed moments later, Australia II was ahead. For good, as it turned out. She rounded the leeward mark with a 21-second lead, having made up an astounding 1:18 on Liberty.

The final, upwind leg of 4.5 miles was the scene of a tense and desperate tacking duel, Conner trying everything he could to alter his fate. But this time Bertrand kept Liberty tightly covered until finally, with the finish line coming up, Conner took off for the spectator fleet on the right side of the course, perhaps hoping that Bertrand would follow. Bertrand did pursue Liberty for several minutes, but only until he was certain he was on the lay line for the finish. Then he tacked onto starboard once more, and the America's Cup was won.

"Australia II was a better boat today and they beat us," said Conner, his voice breaking and his eyes filling with tears. "There are no excuses."

In Week 1, Conner had sailed Liberty to victory in the first two races, but Bertrand got onto the scoreboard with a whopping three-minute, 14-second win in light air on Sept. 18. Australia II then lost to Liberty on Sept. 20, in the first race of Week 2, when Conner sailed perfectly in 10-to 15-knot winds. In the last seconds of the prestart maneuvers, Bertrand mistimed his approach by some five seconds, and Conner, seizing the opportunity, went for the hole between Australia II's bow and the line like a running back. It was a daring move. The slightest miscalculation could have produced a foul because Conner was on port tack while Bertrand, on starboard, had the right of way. But Conner succeeded and wound up with a six-second lead and the favored right side as well. He played the wind shifts, guessing right every time, and by the first mark Liberty led by 36 seconds. By the finish he had increased that lead to 43 seconds.

"It takes two boats to tango," said Conner afterward. "I guess John wanted to tack more, but he tacks very well, and we thought it would be better to do as little tacking as possible with him and try to make him play our game."

"What happened was, we gave Liberty 10 or 15 feet at the start," said Bertrand. "The standard of racing is so tight now that you can't afford to throw 15 feet away, even at 24 miles."

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