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“Ask Skip where he hid the Snickers bars,” says Rob Brown, as if he’s still looking for them 40 years later.
Australia II’s famous 1983 America’s Cup win has been attributed to numerous factors: the fabled winged keel, the weather, psychological advantage. But never has anybody given credit to the humble chocolate bar.
Before each race against American yacht Liberty, trimmer Skip Lissiman would smuggle a couple of bags of Snickers on board in preparation for up to five hours of intense calorie-burning.
“And then I’d squirrel ’em away,” Lissiman recalls. “I was a side trimmer, so we had little pockets where you could put stuff. Then, midway through the race when everyone started to get a bit fatigued, I’d start handing them around. It was a bit of a treat, and it would give everyone an energy boost and put a smile on their faces.”
Lissiman would usually bring the sustenance out just as they embarked on the physically taxing task of sailing upwind or a tacking duel, as they did in the seventh and deciding race that Australia II won by 41 seconds.
“In the last race, up the last beat we did about 45 tacks, which is an incredibly high number in one leg of a race,” Lissiman says. “So everyone on the boat’s pretty physically, mentally and emotionally drained. But everyone was always trying to find my hiding spot, so I kept moving it around so they wouldn’t grab them when they didn’t need them.”
Australia II surges ahead of Liberty during the 1983 America’s Cup.Credit: Sally Samins
Try telling that to fellow trimmer Brown. “He used to have his own little stash on board,” he says. “You’d see him nibbling on them and go, ‘What about the rest of us?’”
Just as memories of the Snickers escapades differ, so too do those relating to other details of Australia’s history-making campaign, which will mark its 40th anniversary on Tuesday.
With posters claiming our win in the America’s Cup fans celebrate on Lygon St, Carlton.Credit: Ray Kennedy
Times have changed even since the 30th anniversary. Bob Hawke, of “any boss who sacks someone for not turning up to work today is a bum” fame, and larger-than-life benefactor Alan Bond, have both passed, and everyone else is a little older again.
The fact many still associate the iconic boxing kangaroo and Men At Work’s Land Down Under with sailing says something about the significance of this sporting moment in the national consciousness. Australia, in the grips of a recession, needed a good news story. It arrived from the unlikeliest of places.
The America’s Cup had sat inside a glass case at the New York Yacht Club in Newport for so long it had not been touched by a human for more than a century – or 132 years. Liberty skipper Dennis Conner had used it to take sailing from amateur to professional, winning 38 straight races.
Australia II skipper John Bertrand sought to remove the aura by spending months behind enemy lines, studying mechanical engineering in Boston and completing a thesis titled “The Optimum Angle of Attack for America’s Cup Sails”.
This was years before 1983 – his fourth attempt to defeat the New York Yacht Club – but he knew exactly how he wanted to play it this time. Not only did they need the right technology, but also the right group of men. He sent out psych tests to prospective crew members.
Skip Lissiman (right), with Phil Judges and Dave Wallace, aboard Australia II in 1983.Credit: Fairfax Media
“It was unheard of at the time, and I was very sceptical,” Lissiman says. “So I gave the psych test to my younger brother and said, ‘Can you fill this out for me?’ and then handed in to John.
“John kept describing all the attributes I was reported to have based on the psych test, and I thought, ‘Yep, that sounds like my brother’. It wasn’t until about 20 years later that I fessed up.”
It was psychology, in a way, that undid the opposition. Particularly the secrecy around the unorthodox keel designed by Australia II’s architect, the late Ben Lexcen, who Bertrand describes as “the Leonardo da Vinci of Australia”.
The wings on the bottom were so unconventional many crew members were shocked when they first saw it, and they spent months effectively relearning to sail to master the art of maneuvering the innovative feature that attacked quicker but was less stable. Then kept it covered in public at all times.
John Bertrand AO, who skippered Australia II to the historic victory, in Sydney last week before the 40th anniversary.Credit: James Brickwood
“That was a major psychological boost for us and a psychological burden for our opposition,” Brown says. “They didn’t know what they were racing. And the management came up with this idea of why show them? Why let them into this technology? And we weren’t even sure whether it was an advantage or not.
“But as the challenger series rolled out through the months in America, all of a sudden we realised this boat was pretty special.”
Come the main event, the Americans realised it, too. Which inspired Lexcen to pull off the ultimate prank.
“He made a sketch of a keel configuration, which was totally different to what we had, and got one of the boys to leave it at the copying machine at the local boatyard,” Bertrand says. “With the instructions of coming back and then making a phone call to say, ‘Sir, we’ve left some confidential information on the copying machine and we’re sending it to someone across to pick it up. Could you just look after our confidentiality, please?’.
Ben Lexcen, left, with then prime minister Bob Hawke in 1984.Credit: Robert Pearce
“Well, of course the Americans were right on that, and it was going all around town. That was Benny at his best. He was a scallywag. The guy was absolutely brilliant. He had three years of formal education – he went to school at nine and left at 12, so he’s unteachable. He was impossible to work with – and we loved him.”
Yet yacht malfunctions played a big hand in Australia II trailing 3-1 and on the verge of defeat. The story goes that, during a subdued breakfast on the morning of their do-or-die race five, Bob Hawke send a video message to the crew to say they had the support of the entire country.
The group, who had subjected themselves to a total media blackout, were suddenly galvanised to win that race, then the boxing kangaroo and Land Down Under came out and TV crews from Australia flew in to join the hype and hoopla at Newport.
“Any boss who sacks someone for not turning up to work today is a bum!“: Bob Hawke famously called an unofficial public holiday after the race of the century.Credit: Bob Jen
Brown remembers it that way, but Bertrand bursts the bubble.
“You know what? We hardly saw it,” Bertrand says. “We were so locked into what we had to do that all those external influences were interesting, but they weren’t the game. We had a job, we were in a bubble. This was a war zone-type operation, and we had a job to do. You don’t even see the people. You don’t hear them. That was my space, at least.
“I don’t want to destroy the myth. Look, it was wonderful that the prime minister of the country sent it across, but we knew the enormity and complexity of what we were trying to achieve. The wind forecasts, making sure the equipment was right after we blew the boat up twice. That stuff was inexcusable. So there were a lot of moving parts to get right.”
The rest is history, a classic underdog tale of a group of misfits – of draftsmen, boat builders, teachers and lawyers – who broke the longest-running winning streak in history, and did it in the most prestigious sailing competition in the world. After the devastation of the 1980 loss, the win was more relief than euphoria, even if their country felt the latter.
Bertrand describes the race as “like slow motion”, of achieving the elusive flow state of being in the zone. He and his crew did not do the usual debrief after the final race – there was no need to – and only reviewed it 20 years later during an anniversary reunion.
Australia II’s winged keel was revealed after the America’s Cup win.Credit: AP
“‘Chink’ [John Longley] stole ’em out of the museum in Western Australia,” he says. “They pinned ’em up on the wall and we started to analyse the performance of the boat in that final race, and I must say we’re pretty impressed with how we sailed it. We’re blood brothers. We did something very special.”
Brown recounts: “Different crew members had different recollections of different parts of the race. So once we actually all sat down in the same room it became incredibly apparent that all the different pieces of the puzzle fell into place. You could say that was pretty well the perfect race.”
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