x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Epic battle on the high seas

William Johnson looks back to 1983 when the United States finally surrendered their 132-year grip on famous trophy.

The announcement that the America's Cup is coming to the UAE next February - a decision which must first withstand a challenge in court rooms in the United States - rekindled memories of what remains the most dramatic day in the history of yachting which unfolded off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island in September 1983.

Until that memorable afternoon, the most important racing battles on the high seas had been regarded as something of a non-event by the watching public as the oldest trophy in international sport remained in the custody of the New York Yacht Club for 132 years. Taking its name from the victorious schooner America which invaded England in 1851 and showing unmatchable speed around the Isle of Wight to defeat its British host Aurora, the America's Cup was most definitely American until a bold challenge from Australia finally prevailed after 24 others had been sunk without trace.

Most of the vanquished vessels were sent over from the United Kingdom. Queen Victoria once famously asked who had won. "The Americans," she was informed. "Who came second?" she continued. "Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second," was the apocryphal reply. It looked like the unrated runner-up berth was again going to be filled by the visitors as Australia II, the 1983 vintage funded by Alan Bond and skippered by John Bertrand, got off to a slow start in that best-of-seven race series.

But after the penultimate battle in Atlantic waters Bertrand and his determined crew had drawn level with the "Liberty" yacht which had Dennis Conner at the helm. Yachting has never been a sport to get the juices flowing but rarely had so much excitement descended on a sports desk as was the case on England's Daily Telegraph that night when the cliche "Hold the back page!" was called out for real.

Other newspapers with less of a sailing connection than the Telegraph were also mesmerised by the possibility of history being made with the unfortunate Conner facing the ignominy of becoming the first US skipper to taste defeat. Communications were not great in those days and the initial belief was that Liberty was in command of the decisive heat but the office ticker tape machine eventually sent over the "snap" message that Australia II (Matilda as she became affectionately known) had waltzed home on the closing stretch. An ecstatic Bertrand celebrated the end of the longest winning streak in sport with the remark: "This puts yacht racing back on the map."

His exploits had, by all accounts, brought Australia to a standstill and Bob Hawke, the prime minister at the time, declared a public holiday in recognition of the extraordinary feat. That was the America's Cup's zenith and it brought about an unprecedented number of 13 challenges four years later before Conner earned the chance to win back his reputation and the trophy by guiding his next craft Stars and Stripes to an emphatic 4-0 victory over Australia's Kookaburra III.

Six times since then, the trophy has been put up for grabs, the latest winner being the Swiss craft Alinghi which emerged victorious in 2003 and made a successful defence against Emirates Team New Zealand three years ago. For the UAE even to be connected with this event is nothing short of amazing, although much water has to flow under the proverbial bridge before Alinghi sets sail from Ras al Khaimah to take on the challenge of BMW Oracle in February.

It promises to be a spectacle to compare with any of the host of major sporting events that have been attracted to this country in recent years. wjohnson@thenational.ae