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1983 America's Cup - summer of shenanigans
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Stu Johnstone

Oct 2, 2009, 8:57 AM

Post #1 of 13 (21881 views)
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Secrets revealed from the summer of 1983

by Stuart Johnstone

(September 30, 2009) I'll never forget the Summer of '83 in Newport. It was fun, full of intrigue, crazy and everyone, seemingly, was having a wonderful time sailing, going to black-tie balls and the sort. Remember the VICTORY BAR? Fabulous place to carry-on and meet people from all over the world. Everyone was having fun, that is, except for the defender’s skipper Dennis Conner and the New York Yacht Club.

Here's a story for the history books regarding that historic event when the boys from Down Under lifted the Auld Mug off its bolted pedestal from the NYYC and changed the America’s Cup game forever (though the skipper's head didn't replace it, I might add).

In that summer of '83, Drake, Jeff and I were running J/World Sailing School out of the famous old RANGER shed, the northernmost pier at what was the old Newport Offshore shipyard. Our J/24's were docked near the shore with Australia II leader Alan Bond's motoryacht parked out at the end. Just about every Sunday during that summer, a combination of the lads from Australia II would wander down the dock - Skip Lissiman, Bondie and others - to enjoy our Sunday evening J/world cookouts with beer, hotdogs and hamburgers.

During these barbeques, we learned from our Down Under "friends" that Australia II was "different”, and while they were remarkably circumspect about what they had, there was no question they were confident about their prospects of doing well, particularly in light-medium winds. As to how "different" their 12-meter was, the rest of the world would not know until that crazy September evening victory celebration next to our docks when Australia II was pulled from the water for all to see. However, we already knew what she looked early as June!

You see, our friend and house-mate, Billy Curtis (who now lives in Boston), was running a dive business working with our friends at Oldport Marine (Mike Muessel & family), and he was also cleaning our J/24 bottoms for J/World every Sunday. We convinced Billy (who didn't need much convincing after a few beers) that we should dive under the skirts of Australia II early in the morning and take a look at what was "different" and, if needed, measure it and make a drawing of it.

So one morning in early June, as we came down to the RANGER shed to get ready for our J/World students, Billy took us into the classroom to show us his unusual drawing. Billy had dove under Australia II, and now had drawn out on our chalk board her hull and "weird-looking keel". He had drawn out the complete shape of the Australia II's keel with the dimensions he had gotten by using a tailors tape-measure during the dive. As Billy described it, "It looked like a J/24 keel mounted upside down with fat wings off of it." Needless to say, we took quick notes and erased it all before the Australia II guys came wandering down the docks that morning (their sail/ gear storage was the other end of our RANGER shed).

We asked Billy to again dive under Australia II's skirts and double-check his measurements. He came back with the same numbers. We immediately went back to the J/Boats office the next day and, somewhat excitedly, explained to my Dad (Bob) what we discovered. We drew it out as close we could to scale and posted it on our walls - staring at it in disbelief. Since we knew Dennis Conner and his tactician Tom Whidden quite well (I had been Dennis' bowman for much of the 1979-1980 Freedom-Enterprise campaign), we invited them over to my Dad's home at "Beechbound" on Newport Harbor. It was easy to get them over since Dennis spent quite a bit of time at Fritz and Lucy Jewett's house next door (they were DC's syndicate sponsors/backers for years).

We described to Dennis and Tom what we did, what our friend Billy saw, and how we had double-checked our measurements. Needless to say, they were visibly "freaked out". At that point, DC and Tom asked us to stay "mum" about it and we gave them the drawings (we had a copy anyhow). To this day, we still wonder why the NYYC never protested them based on a measurement anomaly (the chain girth issue) many respects it comes back to the very old rumor from some old salts in Newport that DC wanted to "throw" the last race so he could be the hero to win it back for SDYC (the oft-cited reason why he gybed away at the top of the last run in the last race of the '83 Cup while winning quite handily).

Only the Good Lord only knows the motivations that DC and Tom had that summer (presumably noble ones)...but a protest never materialized based on their knowledge of what Australia II looked like that beautiful sunny day in mid-June at Beechbound. Intriguing, eh??

P.S.- BTW, my brother Drake, cousin Jeff, father Bob and Billy Curtis would be more than happy to corroborate this story.

The Publisher

Oct 2, 2009, 8:58 AM

Post #2 of 13 (21872 views)
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* From Bob Black:
Stuart Johnstone's piece is interesting. The information remained locked tight for the rest of the summer--at least from the press. I believe the first press person (at least first American press person) I think to dope it out was Dave Knickerbocker of Newsday. Knickerbocker, a very curmudgeonly type himself, was on a press boat following the Aussies in training mode and, he said, the sun and shadows were just right to see through the water right down to the winged keel. Few believed him, but his eyesight was right on.

* From Jonathan B. Luscomb, Palm Beach, FL:
I just finished Stuart Johnstone's story of the summer of 83. Pretty funny that those young bucks were such sneaks! I found it interesting that he could not believe that Dennis and Tom did not protest! I would not have protested either to be found out that I was a sneak! Say what you want about the last race and Dennis not covering to throw the race, but the same mistake was made by Dave Dellenbaugh and the girls on "Mighty Mary". I do not think that Dave was "throwing" that race, he just blew it. In 1983 Liberty blew it. I miss those days in Newport!

Brent Foxall

Oct 2, 2009, 9:01 AM

Post #3 of 13 (21870 views)
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Stu Johnstone is dead right. In the summer of 83, Newport was the place to be. Every night was Saturday night and Saturday night was New Year's eve. A golf shirt with a legitimate 12's sail number on it was a ticket to some of the finest stock the eastern seaboard could offer. As a member of the Canadian team, we won more parties than races and would consume Friday's weekly $100 wage before the weekend was over.

One evening at our Sherman House digs, a few members of the shore crew decided to embark on a recon mission to check out Bondy's flash new ride. Fairly organized and with two cameras, the divers managed to get some great shots in the wee hours of the morning until things went pear-shaped. The getaway chase boat driver, who shall remain nameless, got a rope around the prop and in the ensuing bunfight, one of the divers was apprehended by Bondi's tender driver. Canadian folk hero, James Johnson, spent a day in jail, but the Aussies didn't know about the other camera.

The Canadian navy happened to be visiting our base at this time and sent the incarcerated, a cake with a hacksaw blade hidden inside.

James Johnson, upon his release, founded "Top Drawer Productions", printed his mate’s photos and all was good. During a party at our house we all got to see the pictures. Unfortunately they were stolen during the evening which had Jimmy sweating for a few weeks. To our amazement, the day before the first race of the Cup, Jim's pictures appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail in Toronto. It appears a crewmember’s ex-date had hoovered the shots and sold them to a writer in Toronto. Sorry about that Bondy. No harm intended mate. Just a few "Sealbashers" out having a bit of fun.

Personally, I thought Newport was the most fun of all the Cups I did, although I missed the freak show in ‘88. It sure is a shame it isn't fun anymore.


Oct 5, 2009, 1:14 PM

Post #4 of 13 (20465 views)
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Ah yes, the summer of '83. It was fun.

Australia II was different, but the real difference was up, not down. Few comments are made these days about our radical, vertical cut kevlar sails and our all kevlar running rigging. We also sported a carbon fibre boom. These were firsts. Liberty still sported wire sheets. Have a look at the pictures.

Yes, we had a radical keel but it was a handful at times, particularly dragging those wings downwind.

The reason for the sailing world's obsession with our keel? Some green plastic sheeting attached to a plywood screen. We decided to hide it away for effect. It was a huge distraction for the opposition and the source of great amusement for us.

We knew we had the best prepared 12 metre yacht ever. Steve Ward built a perfect boat. The crew worked tirelessly to make sure she was fair and slick. AII's bottom was perfection. Even today, 26 years later, in a museum, she is perfection.

We had wonderful sails, streets ahead of any other boat.

We had a total of only 13 sailing crew, including only 2 reserves. Our team was tight, and we didn't party. We trained hard. Australian crews had always been popular in Newport, as long as they partied, but we were there to win. Someone had to do it.

Australia II measured just fine. We had to straighten out a few bits of the deck, that was all. She was measured twice, from memory. No problems there at all.

Dennis was so worried that he followed us to Cove Haven and tried to break in to the shed while a measurement was in progress. He is a big man and I seem to remember he had had a few sherbets, but he was blocked by some even bigger folded forearms and got nowhere. I was there with Chink (John Longley), the Major and Richo that night. Nobody was getting past us. It is a tribute to the distraction of our plywood and plastic screen that he didn't try to break into our sail loft to see what was going on.

It was fun and games, but as long as Dennis was chasing us around the State instead of working on his defence, we stayed ahead.
People forget Liberty had 3 different measurement certificates. She was 3 different boats in one. Now that was radical.

As for a conspiracy? Dennis is probably the most successful racing sailor ever. He was and is a ferocious competitor. Despite his insecurities I don't think Dennis is even capable of backing down. There was no conspiracy to lose. He (they) made a mistake in the last race. Anyone, even the great Dennis Conner, can make a mistake.

And don't forget the only reason we entered the last race at 3-3 was because Australia II had suffered breakages in the first 2 races. We lost all steering in Race 1 and broke the mast crane in Race 2, causing the main to slip down. We lost these 2 races to breakages not Dennis Conner.

It may be fun to ponder the theories, but the strain of the NYYC's challenge on Benny Lexcen put him in hospital. He had heart problems and died 5 years later. That man was a genius and his early death was a tragedy.

The truth is Australia II was the perfect storm. Sails, crew, rigging, keel, hull, tactics and management. It was fun, and we hoped our victory might liberate the Cup. The current AC farce is a disgrace to the event.

We enjoyed the company of the other challengers. There were wonderful characters out there on the water. We sailed hard against each other but there was a sense of honour, respect and fun that seems missing these days.

Yes, the summer of '83 was one to remember, for many reasons, just about all good. We can only hope that one day America's Cup may be so again.

Will Baillieu
Australia II KA6


Oct 8, 2009, 11:34 AM

Post #5 of 13 (19259 views)
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After the '83 AC someone dug up a copy of either SAIL or Sailing World (I think this one had a different
name at the time). It turns out that in a preview article the magazine had run, they had a drawing
and description of Australia II that turned out to be just about dead on. The drawing and description
included the keel. Seems the keel wasn't such a secret afterall. The information and drawings were
out there long before the skirt was lifted.

Guy Gurney

Oct 9, 2009, 9:17 AM

Post #6 of 13 (19232 views)
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You may be thinking of the drawing that we printed in the September 1983 issue of Yachting magazine, which was on the newstands in late July or early August. Page 42. I drew it from descriptions given to me by several people who had taken a peek at Australia II's keel in Newport, mostly through gaps in the tarp when she was hoisted out of the water. The profile was accurately drawn. The wing shapes drawn were a little off, but the idea was right. A day or two after the magazine appeared Chink Longley called to ask where and how I had acquired the drawing, and from the tone of his voice I knew we had got it pretty much right!

The Publisher

Oct 11, 2009, 5:46 AM

Post #7 of 13 (19192 views)
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Submitted by Blue Robinson:

Ben Lexcen: A crazy lovable rouge
Ben Lexcen was a remarkable man who did much more than design Australia II, the boat that won the 1983 America's Cup, thus ending New York Yacht Club's 132 year winning streak in the event. As a reminder, here is an article on Ben I wrote for Seahorse magazine which appeared in August 2007:

Paul Henderson

Oct 11, 2009, 5:49 AM

Post #8 of 13 (19190 views)
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“The real story about the Acapulco Olympics with BenBob, which is what his friends were allowed to call him after he changed his name from Bob Miller to Ben Lexcan, is as follows: The final night after the Medal Ceremony all hell breaks loose. The Olympic Village was the wonderful Caleta Hotel. As usual the Irish and Aussies were trying to outdo each other. Ben thought the Aussie party needed more noise so he commandeered me to drive his Pink Jeep down to the Tequila A Go-Go. Ben went inside and hired the seven-piece Mariachi Band, which he crammed into the back of the Jeep.

“We drove through the security without stopping and Ben took his band to the Aussie party, where he not only conducted the entourage but played the tuba. Security finally caught up with the intrusion and expelled Ben's Band. It was now 11 p.m. and Ben turned to me and squinting nervously said, "Henderson take me to the airport. I am going to see Buddy Melges". My response was, since Buddy did not sail in the 1968 Olympics, he was in Zenda Wisconsin. Ben, dressed in his sandals with shorts and shirt bought at Goodwill and with only his toothbrush, demanded I drive him to the airport, which I did.

“The conversation with the Airline Ticket Agent went like this: ‘I want a ticket" demanded Ben. "To where - as there is only one more flight tonight,’ she replied. ‘Good! I will buy it,’ announced Ben, and he disappeared.

“Three days later I got back to Toronto and was concerned about what happened to my FD pal so phoned Buddy in Zenda, and asked if he had seen Ben. ‘Yea - do you want to speak to him?’ Ben had flown to Bogota Colombia, Dallas, Chicago where Gloria and Buddy took him to Zenda.

“What great memories I have of the bizarre characters I had the pleasure of sailing against. BenBob and Buddy are at the top of the pyramid.” - Paul Henderson

The Publisher

Oct 23, 2009, 10:17 AM

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Here is a flurry of commentary from prominent participants in the 1983 Match:

Peter van Oossanen:
Dennis Conner:
John Bertrand:
John Bertrand and John Longley:
John Longley:

frank betz

Oct 23, 2009, 11:49 AM

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Now a story about these exciting new "Dolphin skin" coatings... and history.

During the Cold War days of the 1960's it occurred to a NY patent attorney banking client of mine that, due to the desperate need for hard currencies in the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, perhaps Russian officials might consider allowing an American inside the Iron Curtain to evaluate non-strategic new technologies which could be profitably licensed in the West. So Jerry Feldman typed and mailed a letter outlining his idea, which began: "Dear Premier Kruschev..."

Some ten weeks later three CIA guys showed up at Feldman's office with a response from Kruschev, who enthusiastically embraced the idea and invited Feldman to become the first westerner in 20 years to be allowed into Eastern Europe. After being taken to Langley HQ to be briefed on what to look for over there of interest to the CIA, Jerry embarked on his incredible 10 week tour, during which he was escorted through a dozen or more Soviet states accompanied by an Intourist entourage of perhaps 20 government officials which was headed by a Kruschev deputy named Leonid Brezhnev.

This expedition resulted in Feldman being permitted to license half a dozen technologies, the most interesting being a plastic defined as a "three dimensional hydrophilic high a polymer" developed by a Czech scientist who had devoted years unsuccessfully attempting to format it into a soft contact lens.

Back home, American Optical lab people soon got the bugs out of the goo, and it went on to make National Patent the hottest stock in the U.S. from soft contact lens royalties.

Meanwhile a lab technician who was into boat racing thought the hydrophilic properties of the stuff might reduce boundary layer friction on boat hulls, and a new product designated “Hydron Speed Coat” was introduced to the recreational marine market in 1971.

Starting with Jakob Isbrandsen’s new “Running Tide”, Hydron was applied to dozens of the hottest racing boats in the country, including all but one of the next America’s Cup boats, except by a guy named Ted Turner, who designated it a lot of “snake oil bullshit!” Naval drum testing suggested Hydron could reduce drag between 2% to18%, but they couldn’t quantify a consistent result. The product cost about 3 cents a gallon to make, enough to do most 40 footers. Packaging it cost about $3.00 a quart, and it was priced at a retail of $38.00 per quart. I know all this because Feldman hired me to be president of the subsidiary manufacturing Hydron. Ah, yes! Days of wine and roses! So. Whatever is old is new again, yes?

Frank Betz

The Publisher

Oct 25, 2009, 6:30 AM

Post #11 of 13 (18734 views)
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From David Redfern:
Don't forget that in 1983, de Savary's Victory '83 had a winged keel as well. It was not used, but a letter of confidentiality endorsing its legality was obtained, and after the win by Australia, de Savary's legalisation letter finalised the dispute between NYYC and Royal Perth as to whether the wing was legal. The Victory keel was designed and tested in England.

The Publisher

Oct 25, 2009, 6:31 AM

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From Philip Crebbin:
To follow up David Redfern's comments about Victory 83's winged keel in the 1983 America's Cup challenger races, I would like to add some clarification. What Victory 83 had were some detachable, neutral buoyancy winglets designed by Ian Howlett, the designer of Victory 83. These could be put on without any change to the boat's flotation and so there was no need for any re-measurement.

They were used in one race in the challenger trials. It was a race against Advance Australia that was deliberately chosen as Advance was unfortunately proving to be the "dog" of the challenger fleet (to the extent that the top of its bow was painted black in a small circle to give the boat a dog's nose!). It proved to be very fortunate that Victory chose Advance to race against in this configuration as we were behind nearly all the race and only just managed to scrape past before the finish. Our view on the boat was as per that classic phrase - "We couldn't get out of our own way." It was discovered afterwards that the winglets had been mounted at slightly the wrong angle, and that made all the difference. The experience was enough to prevent their being used again in what was proving to be very close racing against several of the challengers. But I am sure they would have been good at the right angle if there had been the chance to test them properly!

The important point of David's note is the official letter obtained by Ian Howlett from the head of the Technical Committee of the IYRU (as it was at the time) before the winglets were used confirming that they were legal in terms of the 12 Metre Class Rules. That certainly was enough to kill that part of NYYC's complaint about Australia II's winged keel, but that does not affect the argument about who designed it. I personally think that John Bertrand's notes put it very clearly and I am fully satisfied with that.

The Publisher

Oct 25, 2009, 7:09 AM

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From Bruce McPherson:
Your presentation of relevant documents regarding the design of AUSTRALIA II, taken all together, present a very familiar scenario of the yacht design process when tank testing is involved. It describes exactly my experience when tank testing at Stevens Institute in the 1970's. Pete Desaix, with much testing experience management, was always anxious to share ideas that might improve a design. Note well that such encouragement often inspired further testing and thus vastly enhanced his business at the tank. This is exactly what is evidenced by your well chosen evidence. Pete would offer suggestions, but, at least at Stevens, the designer had to draw the modifications and get the outside model maker to make the new model for testing.... Thanks for the note from John Bertrand; very level head, always! Many thanks for airing that thread so well!

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