This is what it was like on the high seas one minute after Australia II won the America's Cup. Every boat from miles around came flying across Rhode Island Sound. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Smoke and thunder, water roiling into froth, boats rolling and pitching, sirens screaming in raucous chorus with horns and claxons--all at a perilous arm's reach from the elegant yacht that made history on the waves.
This is what it was like. Cabin cruisers, rubber dinghies, three-master sailboats, hydroplaning power boats, Coast Guard cutters with blue lights twirling--so many boats of so many colors and shapes the ocean seemed a tub asplash with a child's thousand toys. One minute Australia II won the America's Cup and the next minute the Atlantic was alive with a celebration landlubbers have never seen.
It was late this afternoon, the falling sun turning the water into diamonds, as Australia II, a faster boat than Liberty, the better machine without doubt, made its last turn left and ran for the New York Yacht Club committee boat, Black Knight, 200 yards west of an orange buoy that marked the finish line where Australia could end the United States' 132-year hold on sailing's grandest glory.
Once the leader by nearly a minute, Liberty was helpless at the end when Australia II stretched a 21-second lead entering the last leg to a victory margin of 41 seconds. Liberty's skipper, Dennis Conner, put his crew through 47 tacks that last 4.5-mile leg--imagine John Riggins carrying 100 times and you have an idea of the physical effort asked for here--but there was no catching the Australian boat with the mysterious and unorthodox winged keel.
This is what it was like 12 miles from shore, 12,000 miles from Perth and a jillion miles from sanity. Alan Bond, the Australian tycoon who has spent $16 million in four America's Cup challenges, leaped from his cruiser, Black Swan, into a rubber dinghy there in the rolling sea, nearly slipping into the deep himself. Along with him, also dressed in the Aussies' green and yellow, came the boat designer Ben Lexcen, who dreamed up the winged keel and now, in the maelstrom of smoke and water, balled up a fist and raised it high as the dinghy leaped and fell on the waves.
"We beat 'em," cried out Warren Jones, the Australian crew chief. "We beat 'em." In a sort of victory parade, a tender gave Australia II a tow back toward shore, with an armada of admirers tagging along so near the yacht that it was possible to hear Bond, hefting a can of Swan beer, his own company's beer, shout to Lexcen, "Steady as she goes, Ben."
What a beautiful moment it was for Ben Lexcen, for after a summer of pillory by the stiffnecks of the New York Yacht Club, who thought to have his invention declared illegal, here he was in a sailor's grandest moment--and he was at the helm of the boat he made, steering her behind the tow, a smile lighting the impish features of the up-by-the-bootstraps fellow who said only the day before, "It hasn't been fun to be called a liar and cheat."
This is what it was like. It was like a sea battle. Ships at close quarters. Smoke turning the sky gray. A fire hose roaring water 50 feet high. The victors sending up green and yellow balloons, the victors raising a huge flag of triumph that showed a yellow kangaroo outfitted with boxing gloves.
"When you hear the thunder, you better run, you better take cover," says the Aussies' theme song played at thunderous levels all week. There is a small patch on the Aussies' mainsail: a kangaroo beating up an eagle.
Lexcen at the helm, Bond on the transom above him with a steadying hand on the boom and a happy hand on his can of Swan Lager, and skipper John Bertrand waving his cap--they made a team too good for the Americans who won the first America's Cup race in 1851 and had defended it 24 times against challengers whose skill ran second to their enthusiasm.
Not this time. Dennis Conner and Liberty were as good as any American team ever. Every seadog today gave Conner credit for a great fight. That he led the Aussies at all, considering the equipment, is testimony to Conner's tactical skill and tenacity. He lost today going downwind, where in one astonishing 4.5-mile run going to the last leg, Australia II entered the run 57 seconds behind and left it 21 seconds ahead--a turnaround of 78 seconds that veteran 12-meter navigator Peter Stalkus called "extremely exceptional."
"What a sailing lesson Conner gave our boys," said Louis d'Alpuget, for 40 years a preeminent Australian yachting correspondent. "Dennis pulled tricks Bertrand had never seen. It was a wonderful fight he made. But he didn't have the machine under him. That incredible, bloody machine pulled our boys out."
"My God, what a fight," said Gary Jobson, tactician for the American 12-meter Defender, working today as a commentator for Australian radio. "It is un-be-liev-a-ble . . . This is the greatest moment in the history of our sport."
It isn't even necessary to point out precisely when Jobson made that observation. It was true a hundred times today. Before the race, Australia II seemed a cinch to defeat Liberty, which unkind judges had dubbed, for its tendency to wallow, "The Sea Pig." "You can't make a bathtub hum," an Aussie journalist said of Liberty.
And yet Liberty hummed long enough to lead all but the last six miles, spending the final 4 1/2 mounting its desperate tacking duel into the wind. By then only a providential shift of wind could win for Liberty. Providence was busy elsewhere, though, and as Australia II folded its sails away, there in the madding ocean, Liberty made a right turn away from the celebration and sailed into the sunset, alone.