America’s Cup: thru the eyes of a 7 year old.

The America’s Cup is turning, or more likely has turned, a sharp corner in its history. All the new things I am reading about the cats, the skullduggery behind the negotiations, the vast amounts of money (still) hovering around the event and, in the past week or so, seing the complete Circus assemble at Fort Adams in Newport have stirred up the mud at the back of my memory.

September in Sydney, Australia, is the late winter, early spring. It is still cool in the morning, and rain is common, making for a raw feeling in the air. Such chilly days are very good days to sleep in. On just such a dank and rainy September day in 1962, this particular 7 year old kid was trying to do just that, against the admonitions of his mother to get up and get ready for school. I had an ulterior motive for lying abed, though besides aversion to the weather and school. I was listening to the radio coverage of the America’s Cup races on Rhode Island Sound.

I had been around boats for literally as long as I could remember. My dad always had boats, small sailing boats: the 1962 boat was a converted 16 foot skiff, the lesser known cousins of the infamous 18 footers. Dad had brought it from someone, somewhere, the particulars unknown to me and he then proceeded to de-tune it. “Walagai IV” was re-rigged with a smaller (than the original huge) rig & he cut the bowsprit down to half size. For cruising comfort he added a foredeck, washboard and side decks and away we went. In this lovely old cold molded skiff he and I cruised and camped all over the Pittwater & Broken Bay estuaries about 30 miles north of Sydney. The boat had no cabin- it was an open skiff after all- but it did have a centerboard, a slightly rusty and not particularly smooth galvanized dagger board with a round bottom/tip to it and a large wooden handle on the top. I could not move it either in the trunk or after my dad had pulled it up and out of the trunk.

While it was cumbersome the presence of a dagger board did give us the singular advantage of drawing only about 4 inches with the dagger board completely withdrawn. Such shoal draft allowed us great scope in our cruising, particularly our options regarding overnight moorings. We could sail all over the relatively protected water of Pittwater all day then drop a stern anchor and put the bow up on any of the hundreds of beaches in the area. We could then take a line ashore and set up a regular tent on the beach or grass land above the sand OR we could moor the boat in 12 inches of water with a stern anchor out and a bow anchor or mooring line out to a suitable tree or rock and then rig a purpose built boom tent over the cockpit. The side deck and fore deck, with its splashboard and the boom tent were so designed & built that rain would not enter under the tent.

Under this warm and cozy arrangement I spent most of the weekends of my infancy and holidays of my early child hood snuggled in a homemade sleeping bag laying on a Lie Lo, an inflatable air mattress atop the boat’s floor boards. I have a picture taken by my father, (he was an artist and always had camera, sketch pad, water colors and pencils with him) annotated on the reverse in his fine hand as “Christmas Cruise, 1957”, of me asleep in the boat. I was two and a half at the time. My canvas army-surplus kit bag full of my spare clothes was my pillow. My earliest memories, in the late 1950’s are of the smell of Kerosene used in the hurricane lamp and the primus pressure stove: of Smalls Dark Club chocolate, an absolutely wonderful dark chocolate—for a 7 year old—complete with a picture of a gentleman sitting in a leather club chair as the graphic on the wrapping. Of varnish, the smell of Spaghetti and meat balls and something he referred to as Pliers Toast. Since the galley was, well modest, (a single burner pressure Primus kero stove mounted in a specially modified 5 gallon kerosene tin, adapted to the purpose) in order to have toast, one of his favorite cruising foods required some ingenuity. He would take a slice of bread, grip it on one corner with the pliers, and drape it over the exposed flame of the stove—for about 10 seconds. Turn it over and repeat. The result was the most wonderfully warm, slightly burnt on the outside, bread. Butter, kept in a prototype Tupperware plastic container sold for the purpose was stored in the bilges in the cool water during the day and Jam, in a glass jar, label removed and stored likewise made a great way to clean up the sauce from the Spag-Bol as he referred to the main course as. The Dark chocolate was “after’s”, Australian, or at least Father Cooper’s term for what we now call desert.

Thus from an early age I was a water rat. And of course with my dad getting all the usual local and foreign sailing magazines, I “knew all about the America’s Cup” even as a 7 year old. On reflection, 50 years on this means I knew that only the best sailors sailed on the 12 meters trying to win the Cup. Even, perhaps especially then, it had the reputation of being the Holy Grail and historically un-obtainable. No one could beat the Yanks.

I can remember knowing the names of the boats, the designers, where Newport, Rhode Island was and what Rhode Island Sound meant, even as a kid sailing my Sabot, not long after this episode. I muse on the notion that I was stung with the idea that sailing in the America’s Cup was the highest goal one might aspire too. Something beyond perfection and only the really best guys need apply. I still have a scrap book from later on, perhaps when I was 12, with all manner of sail boats in it, pictures cut out of the sailing and general press, for sailing was news worthy in those days in Sydney.

The particulars of the day’s race that kept me abed are not important except for The Voice. The commentary crackling over the short wave AM radio was by the local notable yachting journalist Lou D’Alpuget. He was perhaps the 1960’s version of Bob Fisher as a yachting journalist and sailor who, according to a quick Internet search just now,only recently died at age 91, apparently still writing.

My earliest memories, and they are strong memories, as a kid include lying in bed listening, with completely rapt attention that became extremely focused as the excitement in the voice welled up thru the crackling of the radio signal. I can remember the rapidly ascending pitch of Lou’s voice, as he relayed the race, seemingly puff by puff, actually wave by wave as it turned out, across the airwaves.

Perhaps Peter Montgomery apprenticed under Lou, or heard the same broadcast for Peter has a similar out rushing of that magical component everyone involved in the America’s Cup must have:
Unbridled passion.

This particular race was held in pretty hard air for 12 meters, low to mid twenties of wind speed, and the Aussies, fairly close behind, 12 seconds according to one source- perhaps
only a boat length at the top mark the last time pulled off what is a pretty typical classic Aussie “’ave a go mate” move and set “The Big Kite”. Film footage of this part of the race clearly shows that the white Aussie kite is way bigger than the defenders choice. A classic 18 foot skiff sailor move. The Aussies simply sailed past the defender, (in a move strangely prescient of the 6th leg episode 21 years later) and into the history books by being the first challenger since before the war on to win the race and that by less than a minute. The climax of The Voice was the moment when the Challenger surfed past the Defender and on to win that race. My memory is of almost completely frantic excitement, of Lou’s voice screaming down the air waves.

So long ago, yet the key ingredient still comes thru and I can remember the rising pitch of the voice and think Passion. Funny how a mere sail boat race can evoke such strong emotions in otherwise rational humans. I muse that it is the sink or swim gene in the Human Race that makes us attracted to the event. As human animals, if we cannot make ourselves better than the next guy, or give it a damn good shot, we might all be still back in the trees.

While all the other aspects of that morning 50 odd years ago have sunk under the weight of time, the one thing that stays with me, and pops out at the oddest times, is the passion in The Voice.

Occasionally when out around town (I now live adjacent to Newport, RI) I find old pictures of the America’s Cup matches at Salas’s or the old Christies in Newport. As I look at old pictures of Gretel, or even watch Weatherly, still going strong as a charter boat in Newport, take another load of mid-westerners out for a Faux Race and a lap around the bay, I can sometimes hear in my minds ear the excitement and the passion in Lou’s voice. It occurs to me that it is this passion that is the common denominator in any one who has anything to do with the America’s Cup. After all when one considers the motivations of the guys who commissioned the schooner America and the results she wrought, giving birth to the immortal phrase that defines the America’s Cup as no other enterprise is:

“your majesty, there is no second”

who amongst us does not on any given day dream that we are the Champion of the World, and that all before us have been vanquished.