America Keels Over: The End of USA’s 132 Year Hold of The America’s Cup

A photograph taken of the America’s Cup between circa 1900 and circa 1915 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sports and contests are common interests all around the world. One of the most popular and oldest sporting events today is the Olympics. The Olympics are based on skill and physique and generate publicity all over the world. Similar to the Olympics and other world contests, there’s a more obscure sport most Americans are less familiar with, which is ironically called America’s Cup. Despite being overshadowed by other popular sporting events, such as football or basketball, yacht racing has been around long before the modern Olympics. The America’s Cup dates back to 1851 and was named after the winning schooner boat, America, which was the entry of the New York Yacht Club. Similar to the origin of many sports, sailing was most commonly practiced among the elite groups, but after America’s Cup, yacht and sailboat racing became nationally celebrated. While the cup alone was just a fancy trophy, it embodied a sense of history and prestige and was fiercely sought after. Unlike most competitions, the race was only held when a challenger came forward. This caused only 24 races to take place within 132 years. Over time, the number of challengers grew, and challenger trials were implemented. For 132 years, the New York Yacht Club held the prized cup and remained its undisputed champion. However, the beginning of the 25th challenger trials marked the end of this uncontested reign.1

The capture of the participating boats at Newport Harbor 1983 | Courtesy of Bruce Taylor on Flickr

Newport Harbor, summer of 1983, the winds were blowing, and the water was filled with boats, all there for a singular purpose. These were the trial races that determined the foreign challenger, the challenger who would go on to compete in the best of seven finals against the defendant of the cup, the New York Yacht Club. The New York Yacht Club has already done its own trials, intent to find the best boat design to defend the cup. The winning boat, Liberty, looked like she would have no problem defending the title in Newport. However, the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s challenger boat, Australia II, had a trick up her sleeve.2

The Royal Perth Yacht Club contended for the cup for many years. In the 1980 race, they had a boat with a very flexible mast that allowed the boat to occasionally carry a larger mainsail and go much faster than normal in lighter winds. However, this design was not enough of an advantage for them, as they lost the match to New York Yacht Club’s Freedom, skippered by Dennis Conner, who proved that better sailing techniques are better than speed. Three years later, Conner was still the skipper of the new boat Liberty. Undaunted, the Australians were not ready to give up, and they worked together with designers and architects to create a beautiful design that they believed would sail them to victory.3

Rear quarter view of the notorious winged keel fitted to the winner of the 1983 Americas Cup, Australia II | Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle | Courtesy of Ken Hodge on Flickr

Ben Lexcen and a team of Dutch engineers designed a winged keel that allowed Australia II to demolish the competition during the trial rounds for the Challenger spot.4 The design was in a bomb shape with fins that gave it a deeper draft when heeled over and made the design perfect for gliding through the water and crossing the winds to tack. The immense success of the keel stirred such a controversy that the American team became suspicious, and tried to have Australia II eliminated from the race. The Americans protested that the keel design made the boat exceed the 12-meter rating. If this was accepted, the Australians would have to reduce other dimensions to compensate.5 Despite the protests of the Americans, the International Yacht Racing Union committee deemed the design legal and Australia II was able to continue on to the semifinals and finals. As the controversy escalated, the New York Yacht Club continued to seek avenues to question Australia II’s eligibility to race and even tried to purchase the keel design. They were unsuccessful, and Australia II, having finally defeated all the other foreign opponents, was deemed the challenger.6

The challenger races, best out of seven, began on September 14, 1983. Liberty won the first race, but that was only the first out of seven. Before the second race even began, Australia II suffered a break in its mainsail at the masthead; the big sail could not be drawn properly. Despite this blow, Australia II was in the lead and was flying past Liberty for more than half of the race, but as she came around the fourth leg of the six-leg race, Liberty came from behind! Liberty began a tacking duel and the two boats fought by crossing the wind sixteen times. Australia II was following suit until the final tack where the crew was unable to control the sail and Liberty flew by and claimed the second win. The score was a dreadful 2-0, but the Australian team was not ready to give up. Many spectators and reporters began to doubt the possibility of Australia II winning the cup after all. They managed to win one race, bringing the score to 2-1, before all hell broke loose. Luck was not on their side, evident by the race being canceled due to insufficient windspeeds every time Australia II was taking the lead in the race. On top of the faltering wind speeds, there were breakdowns galore! On the day the winds decided to cooperate, the steering pulley gave way about three-fourths into the race. The universe seemed to be rooting for the American team.7 The Australians took a lay day to look over the boat and fix any problems. Then God seemed to smile down on them because the next two races were astounding victories by the Australians.

Finally, the score was tied at 3-3. The spectators and fans of both teams were on the edge of their seats. This America’s Cup race was one of the most intense races in sailing history. The two boats seemed to be almost equal in sailing ability, unlike when America won the first-ever America’s Cup race by an astounding eighteen-minute lead. The suspense was palpable the week before the seventh and final race. Both teams took lay days to convene, look over their boats, and make sure their victory was guaranteed. Hundreds of flag-waving, horn-blowing supporters gathered at the dockside in the morning. But to everyone’s dismay, the race was called once again due to shifty wind patterns. The frustration was causing a rupture in excitement for the results of the final race. On top of the crowd’s disappointment, both of the teams were getting quite irritated and they began accusing each other of foul play. After a small investigation on both teams, it was concluded that there was no evidence for these claims, and they were ignored for the most part. It was an excruciating wait, but finally, on the morning of September 26, 1983, the race was about to begin.8

The winds were at about eight knots, a light but acceptable speed. Both teams seemed hesitant at the pre-start of the match. This was to be the last race, but more importantly, the deciding race. This race would crown the winner of the Cup, either the victory streak of the New York Yacht Club would continue or there would be a new holder of the trophy, the Australians. The race began, and by sight, Liberty won the start by eight seconds. However, the speed and smooth sailing of the Australians gave them a controlling position at the favored end sailing toward the favored side, which gave them the early lead. Around the fourth leg of the race, Liberty was in the lead by 57 seconds. Onlookers thought the race was already over, but Australia II was not giving up. Liberty failed to cover Australia II, which allowed them to run deeper and faster, assisted by breeze and wind shifts, allowing Australia II to overtake the Americans by the leeward mark. The two boats then engaged in a spectacular tacking duel with nearly 50 tacks, including a number of faked “dummy” tacks trying to break the Australians’ cover. Australia II held on until both boats reached the starboard lay line where she found a wind shift and soon the American lead—and the America’s Cup—was gone with it. Australia II tacked several boat lengths past Liberty at the last moment and stole the victory by an astonishing 41 seconds. With this feat of sailing, the 132 years of U.S. supremacy were finally over.9

Liberty on starboard watching Australia II cross the finish line to win the 1983 America’s Cup | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The crowds were cheering so loudly, celebrating the Australian triumph. After the cup was handed off to the Royal Perth Yacht Club, it signified the second-ever success by the challenger boat. Ben Lexcen and the skipper of Australia II jumped up and cheered along with most of Australia. America’s Cup was a niche interest within the elite members of society in Australia, but this victory brought many new fans to the sport. The Australians affectionately referred to the cup as the Auld Mug, but the name never stuck. Of course, now the Cup would be up for grabs again and the 26th challenge was already being planned out, but this time the defender was the Australians. The cycle would continue in a few years, but now in the waters of Western Australia. This victory cemented the Royal Perth Yacht Club in sailing history and brought about a new culture within Australia as a whole. Even the Americans, led by Liberty’s skipper, were celebrating, who proclaimed that he was glad that they lost. At the Royal Perth Yacht Club, the Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, celebrated with other club members with champagne and exchanged friendly telegrams with American president Ronald Reagan.10 The camaraderie was thick, and everyone was celebrating this feat of sailing and sports history. So in the end, the mighty defender of the cup, America, keeled over. This successful defeat has impacted sports history to this day and finally gave a new defender of the America’s Cup, or as the Aussies like to call it the Auld Mug, after the over-a-century long win streak.11

  1. “History of the America’s Cup,” last modified 2019, https://www.americascup.com/en/history.
  2. Tony Chamberlain, “Australia II has U.S. worried about losing America’s Cup,” Dallas Morning News, August 14, 1983.
  3. Karl Burkhardt, “America’s Cup could keel over,” Plain Dealer, August 14, 1983.
  4. Bruce Stannard, Ben Lexcen: the man, the keel, and the cup (London Boston: Faber and Faber, 1984), 70-71.
  5. Angus Phillip, “America’s Cup faces own ‘pine-tar’ incident,” The Washington Post, August 10, 1983.
  6. Associated Press, “Australia II’s keel is legal for Cup race,” Trenton Evening Times, August 11, 1983.
  7. Angus Phillip, “America’s Cup still waiting for a healthy contest,” Seattle Daily Times, September 16, 1983.
  8. Associated Press, “America’s Cup showdown postponed,” Trenton Evening Times, September 25, 1983.
  9. Joanne Fisherman, “Australia II’s victory gone with the wind,” New York Times, September 18, 1983.
  10. Dick Brinster, “America’s Cup is going ‘down under’,” AP Sports, September 27, 1983.
  11. Eileen Westley, America’s Cup ’83, the Complete Story (Australia: John Fairfax Marketing, 1983), 100-128.

Tags from the story

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    What a great informative article, I would have never known about this topic if it wasn’t for your article. It is surprising how a country can dominate a sport for more than a century, but like any other win streak it was bound to be lost one day and Australia was the one to do it. They should be proud of not letting the historic dominance of the united states to frighten them.

  2. Avatar

    Congrats on publishing, this was a great article. I knew that boat racing was a sport, but I didn’t know that there was a title to be won in the sport or that it started in the 1800s. I don’t know anything about boats and much less about sailing, its incredible what the winged keel did for the Australia II. Congrats again on publishing!

  3. Avatar

    Great article! I have never heard of the America’s Cup before, but this definitely seems interesting. To hold onto such a trophy for such a long time is truly astounding. You would think that sometime, maybe, someone would win a fluke against the US team, but 132 years still remained. Yacht racing is something I will have to look for news about in the future.

  4. Jose Chaman

    Great article Sabrina! I did not know that the winged keel first came to light in the early’s 60’s, I thought that it was an contemporary invention. Other fact that amused me was that Australia had a relevant role in this America’s Cup. I do not know too much about sailing, but thanks to your great explanation and the passion you embodied in this article, I have a growing interest for this topic. Again, great article!

  5. Avatar

    This was a really interesting article on a subject that I would not normally read about. However, this article managed to keep my interested through its entirety. I didn’t know about the incredible dominance of the US in this area. It was great to get a chance to learn about the history of America’s Cup. It was nice to see that there is now a huge competitive side to this event. Thank you for informing me about this subject.

  6. Avatar

    Loved it!
    Now go design a yacht.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Menu