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America’s Cup (1980-1983),
the Australia II becomes part of its history

After more than a hundred years of challenges, the defenders lose. The Louis Vuitton Cup, the cup of the challengers, is born, and it arrives in Italian colours

Home race America’s Cup (1980-1983),
the Australia II becomes part of its history
America’s Cup (1980-1983),
the Australia II becomes part of its history

The America’s Cup of 1983 is historic for at least two reasons: after 132 years the cup changes hands and the Italians make their début in it. For the first time, Italy decides to try its hand at the Regatta of all regattas, considering that it is finally in a position to test itself against the very best. The two organisers are the lawyer Gianni Agnelli, the true “backer” of the operation from the financial and “diplomatic” perspective, and Cino Ricci, the expert skipper from Romagna who is well acquainted with international sailing circles. They play their cards well: the club which launches the challenge is the Costa Smeralda Yacht Club which boasts in H.H. the Aga Khan another important personality. The design of the boat is entrusted to Andrea Vallicelli, one of the best nautical designers.

The crew, albeit totally devoid of experience in handling 12-metre S.I. yachts, is composed of talented and highly motivated sailors, starting with Mauro Pelaschier from Monfalcone. And in order to secure the budget, a Consortium is created from firms across the widest possible spectrum: this is the first time in the history of Italian sport. The boat is named the Azzurra – a perfect name which already at its launch in July 1982 in Pesaro rouses the interest of the public, even if this is nothing compared to what was to happen the following year. 

America’s Cup (1980-1983), the Australia II becomes part of its history

Mauro Pelaschier - ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images


The Louis Vuitton Cup is born

In the waters around Newport, the sporting achievement is merely good: fourth out of seven challengers. But the echo which arrives in Italy every day – paradoxically assisted by the absence of direct television coverage – renders the adventure a memorable one, to such an extent that when they return home, “the Newport heroes” are greeted by a welcome worthy of world champions. However, a result has been achieved because from that day onwards, the tricolour sail will be a participant in the America’s Cup, twice arriving at the concluding act.

In 1983, the elimination races change their name and take on that of their sponsor, becoming the Louis Vuitton Cup: they are won twice by the Australia II, and among the beaten nations is the Canada, marking its nation’s return to the event from 1881. Alan Bond’s boat has an excellent skipper, John Bertrand, and has an extra gear, thanks to a keel – this was discovered only later – which bears little fins, carefully protected by tarpaulins every time it docks. This was created by Ben Lexcen, an eccentric designer from New South Wales who even went so far as to change his original birth name, Bob Miller.

John Bertrand After Winning America's Cup
(Original Caption) A proud John Bertrand, skipper of the Australia II, holds up the America's Cup after it was presented to him and his crew during ceremonies at Newport's Marble House 9/27. The Australian syndicate was the first foreign challenger to win the America's Cup from the Americans in 132 years.


The mysterious keel of the Australia II

The Americans, who had sniffed out the potential of the Australian boat well in advance, do not stand idly by. They know that the old 12-metre S.I. models from home do not stand a chance and Dennis Conner arranges the building of a new hull in record time, the Liberty, and at the same time asks for the Australia II to be disqualified: first with the accusation that it had carried out a test in Holland (violating the principle which requires that a vessel should be the result of a design only by people of the same nationality) then challenging the mysterious keel.

But for once, almost to everyone’s surprise, the decisions both go against the holders. The Australia II is duly admitted to the regatta. The American skipper is furious but remains number one: on the 14th and 15th September he wins with comparative ease the two regattas of the final, and on the 17th, it is only the expiry of the maximum time allowance which prevents the first victory of the Aussies, which however occurs the next day.

With a light wind, Bond’s boat is noticeably superior, and leaves its rival trailing by 3 minutes and 14 seconds for a 2 against 1: this is the largest margin ever conceded by a defender. The following Tuesday the Liberty climbs to a 3 against 1 and everyone gets ready for the usual epilogue, with the Americans making up for the handicap of a slower hull thanks to a better performance by the crew. But this time it is quite another story. John Bertrand’s sailors react and manage to secure a 3 against 3.

The Regatta of the Century

Ever since competitors have been using 12-metre yachts, challengers had won just three races in all against the defending team, equating in fact to the number won in just a few days by the Australia II. The Regatta of the Century, which on its own is worthy of the America’s Cup, takes place on Monday, 26th September, with a light wind. The Australia II is noticeably superior for speed but Conner still seems able to save the day as he passes the penultimate buoy 52 seconds ahead.

But starting on the downwind leg, an increase in the wind, underestimated by the skipper from San Diego and by his famous tactician Tom Whidden, literally “pushes” the Australia II into an overtaking move and on towards the finish line. Incredible news from Newport: after 132 years, the 100-Guinea Cup has to leave America. The critics all agree in noting that the superiority of the Australia II was so great that any other sailor in Connor’s position would have lost by 4 to 0, with massive deficits. For ‘Big Dennis’ there remains simply the consolation that the old saying of “When the America’s Cup has to leave the New York Yacht Club, in its place, in the glass cabinet, you will find the head of the skipper who lost it” was only a figure of speech. Especially now that his main thought is to bring it back home again very soon...

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