They caressed it and climbed all over it. And it just didn't matter anymore.
Australia II's winged keel--the blue demon beneath the sea--deserved to be shown to its public after it carried the white-hulled boat to victory in the greatest show on water.
The keel, which had improved Australia II's maneuverability, performed one last bit of magic by guiding the 12-meter yacht through a maze of assorted welcoming craft tonight.
Three hours earlier, the boat had earned the hearty greeting by defeating U.S. defender Liberty in the seventh and final race of the America's Cup. The triumph ended United States' 132-year grip on sailing's top prize.
The jubilant Australian crew dispensed with its postrace routine of shrouding the innovative keel in plastic. And the gates of the Australian compound, usually stringently guarded, were opened wide to all comers.
Artists' renderings of the keel proved accurate. Instead of angling toward the stern of the boat, the front of the keel was a light blue bulb that pointed toward the bow.
The same color, which blends with the water and makes it difficult to see, also was used for the wings that jutted down from the bottom of the keel.
Thousands of spectators had lined the docks and dozens of boats had surrounded Australia II's slip for two hours before the boat arrived. Many chanted, "Let's see the keel."
They weren't disappointed.
Dennis Conner, Liberty's skipper and the first American helmsman in the Cup's history to guide a losing boat, also was present. He waved weakly to the crowd as he jumped off Black Swan, the tender of Australian syndicate chief Alan Bond.
Bond savored the victory, his first in four cup campaigns, and raised his arms to the cheering crowd. Victorious skipper John Bertrand accepted hugs and congratulations on the tender.
Although Australia II had been hoisted out of the water after each previous competition, for the first time its keel was left uncovered.
Ben Lexcen, designer of Australia II and developer of the keel, stood nearby. He had discovered the secret for ending the longest winning streak in sports and didn't care who knew it.
Several persons from the crowd climbed onto the six-foot wings while others pushed forward with such force that, finally, police locked the gates to the berth.
As Lexcen described it, when the yacht was hoisted from the water "about 500 Americans hung on it (the keel) like leeches."
Earlier today, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported it had obtained photographs of the keel, taken secretly underwater in July by a Canadian. The paper said the man, who asked that his name not be revealed, said he escaped with the pictures while a security guard struggled with Jim Johnston, a member of the Canada 1 syndicate.
Johnston was charged with trespassing, but the charge later was dropped.
"Jimmy and I decided to go for a swim and see if we could take a look at the boat," the second photographer told the newspaper. "It wasn't sanctioned by anybody."
ABC tonight reported that the Australians had submitted plans and pictures of the controversial keel to the British Patent Office in London and, for $3, anyone could have seen the file. On its network news, ABC aired two pictures of the keel from the patent office.