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History of the America’s Cup

The Cup Down Under

1980 || 1983 || 1987 || 1988


1980 - Freedom Fends Off Australia, 4-1

This match marked Dennis Conner’s first Cup victory as a skipper, his sailboat Freedom defeating Alan Bond’s reworked Australia four races to one. It also set the stage for the showdown three years later. Serving as tactician to Australian skipper Sir James Hardy was John Bertrand, who became Conner’s nemisis in three year’s time.

The challenger trials included Frenchman Baron Bich’s fourth and final challenge with France |I, skippered by Bruno Troublé, the first skipper to fall overboard during an America’s Cup race. Also entering the fray were Lawrie Smith’s Lionheart from Great Britain, and Sverige from Sweden.


1983 - The Cup Goes Down Under: Australia | Defeats Liberty, 4-3

It was only fitting that when the NYYC finally lost the Cup, it was the most closely fought match in the event’s history, and it went down to the final race. Alan Bond’s years of effort finally paid off, and he took the Victorian-era trophy, claimed by the upstart American’s 132 years earlier, to a new home at Royal Perth Yacht Club in Perth, Western Australia.

Dennis Conner and Liberty won the first two races, John Bertrand and Australia | the third. The Americans recovered in the fourth, but knew they were in trouble in light air. The two-race American lead faded to a 3-3 tie by the end of the sixth race. And by the end of the seventh race, the Cup was in Australian hands, the boys from Down Under finishing 41 seconds ahead of Liberty and terminating the longest winning streak in the history of sport.

Even without the Australian victory, the event was remarkable in that it was one of the most controversial matches in an event noted for controversy. The Australian boat’s revolutionary winged keel, designed by Ben Lexcen (formerly Bob Miller) and secretly tested in a Dutch towing tank, sparked a loud protest from the other competitors. But the NYYC rules committee ruled in favor of the Australians and the now-famous sailboat dominated the challenger trials to win the Louis Vuitton Cup on its way to unseating the New York Yacht Club.

The defender trials were dominated by Liberty, but a new face had appeared on the America’s Cup scene, the face of man who, like Conner, would be regarded as one of the best skippers in the world. Paul Cayard of San Francisco was a sail trimmer aboard Tom Blackaller’s Defender, which finished third in the defender selection series.

Photos: Copyright Mystic Seaport Museum, from the book "America's Cup '95: The Official Record," published by Tehabi Books.


1986-87 - The Cup Comes Back: Conner Routs the Aussies, 4-0

Dennis Conner turned what had been a summer sport into a full-time occupation. It paid off. Mounting a campaign that lasted more than three years, his curiously shaped Stars & Stripes emerged the victor in a hotly contested challenger elimination series and went on to rout the Australian defender, Kookaburra |I, 4-0. Conner was now not only the first man to lose the Cup, he was the first to win it back as well. The America’s Cup was returning to America, but to a new—and controversial—home at San Diego Yacht Club.

In terms of the number of contestants, this still stands as the biggest America’s Cup regatta yet. There were four defense syndicates, and the challenger series for the Louis Vuitton Cup featured 13 sailboats representing a record six nations, including the U.S., New Zealand, Great Britain, Canada, France and Italy.

In addition to Conner’s Stars & Stripes, the challenger fleet included the innovative USA representing St. Francis Yacht Club. The San Francisco-based sailboat was skippered by the renowned Tom Blackaller, and had rising star Paul Cayard as tactician and alternate helmsman. The sailboat sported an unusual canard, or second rudder, forward of the keel. The design was to improve the sailboat’s performance upwind, but it also made the boat difficult to control. By the time Blackaller and Cayard got the sailboat sailing close to its potential, time had run out on their innovative effort.

The Australian defense marked the entry of New Zealand and merchant banker Michael Fay on the America’s Cup scene. Fay’s KZ7, also known as ""Kiwi Magic," dominated the early rounds of the challenger trials. But the brash young skipper, Chris Dickson, was given a sailing lesson by the veteran Conner in the challenger finals. That was not before Conner had accused the Kiwis of cheating, however, in that they built their sailboat, dubbed the ""plastic fantastic" of fiberglass rather than aluminum. The brash Fay was critical of Conner and San Diego YC officials at the time and remained so, upsetting their America’s Cup cart just a few months later.

Photo: Copyright Mystic Seaport Museum, from the book "America's Cup '95: The Official Record," published by Tehabi Books.


1988 - Catamaran Wins, But the Cup Loses

The 27th defense is the most contentious chapter in an event chronicled in controversy, and considered by many to be the low point in the history of the America’s Cup. Taking advantage of SDYC’s indeciveness and delays over the venue and dates for the defense, New Zealander Michael Fay issued a renegade challenge on July 17, 1987, specifying a sailboat double the size of a 12-meter, and demanding the race be held within the 10 months specified in the Deed of Gift. When SDYC officials declared the challenge invalid, Fay took them to court and won the first round. The match between Fay’s Mercury Bay Boating Club—which had an aging Ford Zephyr as a clubhouse—and SDYC was set for September, 1988.

The SDYC responded by building a 60-foot wing-sailed catamaran as the defender against Fay’s 133-foot ""Big Boat." It was a laugher on the water, as Conner’s Stars & Stripes easily defeated New Zealand, 2-0. But things were deadly serious on shore, as the lawyers picked up where the sailors left off. Ranting ""Read the Deed," Fay returned to the New York Supreme Court, trustee of the America’s Cup Deed of Gift, where he asked that SDYC’s victory be overturned. Judge Carmen Ciparick granted his request. Not giving up without a fight, SDYC appealed the ruling to the New York Court of Appeals, and on April 26, 1990, SDYC was finally declared the winner of the match held more than a year and half earlier.

Photos: Copyright Mystic Seaport Museum, from the book "America's Cup '95: The Official Record," published by Tehabi Books.


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