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Conner and Liberty surrender the Cup

For the first time in series history, the America's Cup was in foreign hands.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 1999


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For 132 years, through 23 challenges, the America's Cup was just that -- America's. Then suddenly it was Australia's.

Sailing generally is a sport of limited interest in the United States -- until some other nation gets involved. Then the chauvinistic us-against-them mentality takes over and Americans who wouldn't know a halyard from a lanyard suddenly act as though their home is about to be burglarized.

If that's how they felt on Sept. 26, 1983, well, it was.

When Australia II skipper John Bertrand and his 12-meter yacht with the revolutionary winged keel crossed the finish line 41 seconds (about six boat lengths) ahead of Liberty, the longest winning streak in sports came to an end, as did Australia II syndicate owner and sailor Alan Bond's 13-year, $16-million quest for the cup.

"Australia II was the better boat today and they beat us and we have no excuses," said the tearful Liberty skipper Dennis Conner of San Diego, an old hand in America's Cup competition. "It was very frustrating, but we did the best we could."

The ornate silver pitcher would be unbolted from its home, a glass-encased table at the New York Yacht Club, and presented to the Royal Perth Yacht Club, the official challenging club that Australia II represented. It was the first victory by a challenger since the schooner America won it in a race around England's Isle of Wight in 1851.

"Now, 132 years later, we turn this over to you," said NYYC commodore Robert G. Stone, Jr., presenting Peter Dalzell, his counterpart at the RPYC. "With the effort Australia has put into this effort for years, there's no country we'd rather have it. But we'll be back to go get it. Take good care of it."

After four races on Rhode Island Sound, Liberty led the best-of-seven series 3-1. But Australia II clearly was the faster boat in straight-line sailing and through tacks. It was Conner's guile and experience that enabled Liberty to build that lead. Ultimately, the speed of Australia II prevailed.

Both skippers played it conservative at the start of the seventh race, "because nobody wanted to make a mistake and end up in the protest room."

Liberty crossed the starting line eight seconds ahead of Australia II and in a better position. Within minutes, though, Australia II moved ahead.

Liberty regained the lead and was in front by 29 seconds when the two yachts sailed around the first marker on the triangular, six-leg, 24.3-mile course.

Liberty remained ahead at the end of the second, third and fourth legs, heading into the downwind fifth leg 57 seconds ahead. The race was decided here.

Australia II, with her ability to tack faster, arrived at the start of the final leg 21 seconds ahead of Liberty and lengthened the lead the rest of the way. "We were all just doing everything we could to hold them off," Liberty navigator Halsey Herreshoff said.

In Australia, where the telecast of the race began at 2 a.m., Prime Minister Bob Hawke told a national television audience: "You might as well take the day off. We will all be a team of zombies anyhow." Australians, among the world's best beer drinkers, forsook the brew for champagne -- but tavern owners and hoteliers made emergency calls to breweries to stock up for what became a day-long celebration.


-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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