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This is the race that stopped the nation

Hardy souls: Australia II won the 1983 America's Cup with a superb fightback from 3-1 down in the best-of-seven series.

Hardy souls: Australia II won the 1983 America's Cup with a superb fightback from 3-1 down in the best-of-seven series.

''Britannia rules the waves - the NYYC waives the rules …"

The running gag, dating to 1934, concerning the New York Yacht Club's constant meddling to help defend the America's Cup. Until one day in 1983 …

Gather round, ye young'uns, and let the old fellers tell you something of what many of us still regard as Australia's most stunning sporting moment - at least in our lifetime. It was in 1983, 30 years ago this month, and Australia was competing in the America's Cup, just like the one that has now got under way in San Francisco. But much, much bigger and more important. Yes, it was unlike the Americans to have a world series or world sporting competition where other nations could compete, but as they had "America" in the comp title, and as they had held the Cup for the previous 132 FREAKING YEARS, I guess they figured they were safe. And all the more so because in the best-of-seven finals races held off Newport, Rhode Island, their yacht, Liberty, skippered by Dennis Connor, had gone to a 3-1 lead and it was obvious to anyone who knew about sailing - and the rest of us besides - that they would shortly cruise to another victory and it would be all over.

The prize: John Bertrand holds the America's Cup aloft in 1983.

The prize: John Bertrand holds the America's Cup aloft in 1983.

But then our yacht, Australia II, funded by Alan Bond, skippered by John Bertrand, designed by Ben Lexcen, and crewed by a bunch of likely lads, scratched and clawed its way to two wonderful victories to even the balance at 3-3.

Game on!

Alas, alas, with just 10 minutes to go in the final race, held in abysmally calm conditions, Australia II is near to buried, 16 men on a dead man's chest and all that, with Liberty so far in front the race is effectively over.

And then the magic …

A rustle of wind. A breeze. Where is it coming from? Over there, where the water is rough with sudden agitation. There is some wind over there, I tell you, and Bertrand jibes to starboard accordingly. (Stand down, "Carter the Farter", we're going after it!) Within a minute, the sails fill, the rigging groans, and Australia II surges. There proceeds some sailing argy-bargy, parry-thrust, cut-and-jibe-and-jibe again, but the upshot remains. Suddenly, impossibly, in a miracle to beat them all, five minutes later as the two yachts come together again, the goodies are in front.

In Sydney it is about 7am, and the Harbour Bridge is practically empty as everyone has stayed at home to watch it. On 2KY, Ron Casey interrupts an ad for DJs - "Forget that, Australia II has hit the front! YOU BLOODY BEAUTY!" Ferries and ships blast their whistles, trucks honk their horns and pedestrians with transistor radios to their ears do double air-pumps. Even then though the America's Cup is far from won. From that moment, it takes a full 40 minutes before the two yachts are on the approach to the finish line, and across the country throughout that time no one breathes, no one moves.

On Australia II the pressure is relentless as the wily Connor tried everything in his vast arsenal to regain the lead. "It was like being part of a death squad behind enemy lines in Vietnam," Bertrand later told me. "Like being dropped 100 kilometres behind enemy lines with your mates and having to fight for your life and complete the mission." At one stage, with Bertrand yelling orders and each crew member hauling ropes and scurrying around the deck, the Americans get to within six metres of Australia II, but still our blokes are holding on.

As they cross the line - first, first, FIRST, ah say it, Ron Casey, you bloody beauty! - a strange thing happens, at least the way Bertrand would remember it.

"I don't recall any sound," he told me. "All I remember is the smoke. I mean, it was a huge cannon, to blow your eardrums out, but I don't remember any sound."

But there is sound in Australia, all right. Cheering, whoops of joy from coast to coast. It is sheer unadulterated sporting ecstasy. No, we are not necessarily to sailing born and don't even like it much as a sport, but that is not the point. The point is that the Americans love it, had never been beaten in all that time, and now we are taking that cup off them.

Thirty years on, it thrills me still.

The only thing that could equal it these days would be if the Socceroos could win the World Cup. Unlikely, I grant you, given they lost 6-0 to Brazil last week, and were lucky to get to nil under the circumstances, but then so was winning the America's Cup highly unlikely.

But those blokes proved it. It can be done. Congratulations to them all, all these years on. We still remember.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

26 comments so far

  • Great story fitz, great memories. Still our greatest ever sporting moment. P.S did u see the americas cup on at the moment. Please! Give me the 1983 boats over these cutting edge monsters

    Shane of Panania
    Date and time
    September 12, 2013, 8:01AM
    • It's called evolution. The technology you're seeing in the current regatta, will be adapted and used on commercial, and recreational boats into the future. All well and good looking at the past, just don't stare.

      Middle Earth
      Date and time
      September 12, 2013, 1:18PM
  • I especially recall the build up that preceded the previous challenges from boats with names like Gretel, Dame Pattie and Australia I. How each time it was going to be different, and then we got thrashed. Oh, and the excuses after each race loss. But that didn't stop expectations from rising again at the start of the Australia II challenge. Then we lost the first race - doing so well (of course) except for a gear failure, and shoulders slumped (again). Then two down - another gear failure, unlucky wind change? Hopeless despair - we'll never beat the Yanks at this. Then a win. Oh well, at least we won one. Should I get excited? Nah. Then 3-1, of course, that was so expected. Gloom. Then 3-2. Hey, wait a minute! One more win and it's 3-3 and it all rests on the last race. Holy moley, it's 3-3, we're in this! And finally, barely believable were it a movie script, the impossible happens. Australia II after trailing overtakes and hangs on to win!! Greatest sporting moment in my lifetime, no doubt.

    Date and time
    September 12, 2013, 8:36AM
    • Does Peter not realise there is an America's Cup challenge happening right now in San Francisco - or is he trying to deflect the attention away from the Four Nations Rugby Championship.

      Oh no, of course, the Kiwis are involved in both events.

      Date and time
      September 12, 2013, 9:31AM
      • Actually Rodders, he DOES mention this year's race, within the first 10 lines of the article, but I'd hardly expect your one eye to be able to provide any perspective through that long, white cloud of chups sitting on your shoulder...

        Hugh Briss
        Date and time
        September 12, 2013, 11:52AM
      • Do you not realise you are a complete muppet (being polite)? In future, try reading the first few lines before you make a complete idiot out of yourself...again...

        Date and time
        September 12, 2013, 12:34PM
      • it's like when that great nzer climbed that big mountain, it was a great achievement and it still is whenever someone else does it but nowhere near as impressive as the first time.

        Date and time
        September 12, 2013, 3:34PM
    • 30 years ago! I was 12 and remember it as clear as if it was yesterday. Magic.

      Seedy guy
      Date and time
      September 12, 2013, 9:57AM
      • Ah Fitz, you are indeed a wordsmith.

        I remember that morning so well, as a 12 year old school kid, I was dug out of bed by my mum with my younger siblings to watch that magical moment. Our crazy uncle in Perth had phoned as Australia II took the lead to demand the rest of the family get up and watch history in the making.

        I cited the Australia II win in an Australia V England debate a few years ago and it still drew whoops of appreciation from the Australian's in the audience.

        When a couple of kids from the US started at our school later in 1983, we gleefully asked them how they felt when the Australian boat won the America's Cup. Their reply was a little deflating when they replied that they hadn't actually heard of the America's Cup until they arrived in Australia.

        Date and time
        September 12, 2013, 10:07AM
        • Mate - I swear that's Richard Hadlee holding the trophy....and he's a kiwi. Never mind - that's a premonition of what's to happen in the next week or two.....!!!!

          Date and time
          September 12, 2013, 10:32AM

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