It would seem as though determining the winner of a sailing contest between two boats would be a simple matter. A point for the beginning and one for the end would be determined, with the first boat to make it to the ending point being the winner.
The sport of yacht racing, however, requires deep pockets belonging to men who are accustomed to having their own way at all costs, and when they do not get their way, they resort to litigation.
Hopefully, it is obvious that we are talking about the most famous and longest running yacht race in history, the America’s Cup. It was a shock to the British psyche when the schooner America bested Britannia the Queen of the Oceans in 1851.
The upstart New York Yacht Club, in its infancy, defeated the British in an event that reputedly unseated Great Britain as the undisputed maritime power of the world. Nineteen years after taking the Cup from the British, Englishman James Ashbury issued a challenge to reclaim the trophy. There was substantial legal wrangling over the way the race would be held, but in the end, 17 boats took part, with Ashbury’s Cambria able to do no better than 10th against a fleet from the New York Yacht Club. This prompted an immediate challenge to meet again the following year.
With the help of a fleet of lawyers, Ashbury demanded that the race be a contest between just two boats. He also disputed how the race was scored and how the course was determined.
He lost, sorely claiming that he had won and that the Yanks were poor sports, but he found no sympathy from any court. The Canadians issued the next two challenges for the America’s Cup, with predictable results. The Irish and Scottish were next into the fray, led by tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton.
He accepted the nature of the deck being stacked against him by the New York Yacht Club and challenged five time over a 30-year period. His involvement produced no victories, but his affable persona did have a favourable influence on his company’s tea sales. Lipton is credited with having introduced the concept of corporate sports sponsorship and anyone can see where that has led. Harold Vanderbilt (of the American aristocratic Vanderbilts, of course) soundly defeated Lipton’s last attempt in 1930.
That year, 1930, was significant for the debut of stunningly beautiful boats driven by almost unimaginable amounts of sail. By 1939, however, all but three of these, known as the J-Class, had been stripped for metal to support the war effort.
When the series resumed in 1958, it ushered in the 12-Metre era, but no country could wrest the Cup from the Americans despite eight attempts over a 25-year period. During the course of this time, all countries interested in challenging the Americans held a competition to nominate one boat to make the attempt, something the Americans had been doing as defenders for the better part of 100 years.
The Challenger Selection Series, as it was called, began in 1970 and eventually came to be known as the Louis Vuitton Cup after the French purse maker got involved in 1983. One of the countries challenging for the privilege of racing that American boat that year marked the arrival of the “Men From Down Under,” misinterpreted by the yacht racing illiterate Americans as meaning that some country intended to make the challenge in a submarine, but in reality, it was an Australian surface boat, complete with a kangaroo flag in its rigging, along with a secret weapon that was indeed beneath the water, that easily dispatched all others in route to winning the Louis Vuitton Cup and the right to challenge the Americans off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island.
The boat was the Australia II. Its secret weapons was a winged keel that was mildly evocative of a boomerang, a device whose properties would seem ill-suited for a racing vessel, unless the intent was for a boat that always returned to port. Winged keels are used for the extra stability they provide when a boat is being sailed against the wind. Downwind, they are something of a hindrance, but not to an extent sufficient to outweigh the benefits.
The design was strenuously protested by the Americans, led by their skipper, Dennis Connor. Connor rested his protest on the allegation that the keel of Australia II was designed by Dutch engineers, thus making it illegal. It seemed as though more time would be spent in the courts than on the water. Connor lost this protest and came off as an exceedingly poor sport when his boat Liberty won the first two races in the series by over a minute on both occasions. Australia II took the third race before Liberty squeezed out a 43-second win in the fourth.
With the Americans holding a 3-1 advantage and needing only one victory to defend the Cup, Australian skipper John Bertrand took to the helm on 21 September and left the Liberty nearly two minutes in his wake. The following day, he so dominated the competition that by the time Liberty crossed the finish line, he was well into his second celebratory beer, meaning of course, almost three-and-a-half minutes. The deciding race took place four days later, 26 September.
A light wind meant a tight race. Liberty gained an eight second advantage at the jump, but throughout the race, the lead changed hands three times. Not only light at eight knots, the wind, as wind is wont, shifted directions numerous times, placing an emphasis on tactics and tacking. The last leg saw Australia II leave Liberty in its wake and cross the line 41 seconds ahead and wresting control of the America’s Cup away from the Yanks for the first time in over 130 years.
Australians watching the last race in lieu of showing up for work, had a staunch advocate in Aussie Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who was quoted as saying during the victory celebration that, “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.”
Just a little over a month later, Hawke did not have to say anything of the sort when New Zealander thoroughbred Kiwi won the 122nd edition of the Melbourne Cup, but that is a given. The America’s Cup was removed from its dusty spot in the New York Yacht Club and transferred to its new home at the Perth Yacht Club. When the next challenge was granted in 1987, Liberty II was not the Australian representative, nor was the American boat the Liberty.
The race featured Stars and Stripes 87 against Kookaburra III, and we will leave the determination of which boat raced for which country to you. The races series was held in Gage Roads off Freemantle, and although it was a best-of-seven affair, Connor needed only four attempts to sweep Iain Murray, marking the first time a skipper was unsuccessful in defending the America’s Cup and then recapturing it.
In fact, This was also the last occasion where the 12-metre class of boats was used before giving way to designs resulting from a radical application of modern technology, which has yielded speed, but resulted in boats with nothing like the elegance of those from past eras. In doing what no other country had been able to do in over 130 years, Australia gained much prestige in sailing circles, although it was sailing straight lines and zig zags, not circles, that accomplished the feat.