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Stuart Johnstone
Scuttlebutt News:

Secrets revealed from the summer of 1983

by Stuart Johnstone

(September 30, 2009) I'll never forget the Summer of '83 in Newport. It was fun, full of intrigue, crazy and everyone, seemingly, was having a wonderful time sailing, going to black-tie balls and the sort. Remember the VICTORY BAR? Fabulous place to carry-on and meet people from all over the world. Everyone was having fun, that is, except for the defender’s skipper Dennis Conner and the New York Yacht Club.

Here's a story for the history books regarding that historic event when the boys from Down Under lifted the Auld Mug off its bolted pedestal from the NYYC and changed the America’s Cup game forever (though the skipper's head didn't replace it, I might add).

In that summer of '83, Drake, Jeff and I were running J/World Sailing School out of the famous old RANGER shed, the northernmost pier at what was the old Newport Offshore shipyard. Our J/24's were docked near the shore with Australia II leader Alan Bond's motoryacht parked out at the end. Just about every Sunday during that summer, a combination of the lads from Australia II would wander down the dock - Skip Lissiman, Bondie and others - to enjoy our Sunday evening J/world cookouts with beer, hotdogs and hamburgers.

During these barbeques, we learned from our Down Under "friends" that Australia II was "different”, and while they were remarkably circumspect about what they had, there was no question they were confident about their prospects of doing well, particularly in light-medium winds. As to how "different" their 12-meter was, the rest of the world would not know until that crazy September evening victory celebration next to our docks when Australia II was pulled from the water for all to see. However, we already knew what she looked early as June!

You see, our friend and house-mate, Billy Curtis (who now lives in Boston), was running a dive business working with our friends at Oldport Marine (Mike Muessel & family), and he was also cleaning our J/24 bottoms for J/World every Sunday. We convinced Billy (who didn't need much convincing after a few beers) that we should dive under the skirts of Australia II early in the morning and take a look at what was "different" and, if needed, measure it and make a drawing of it.

So one morning in early June, as we came down to the RANGER shed to get ready for our J/World students, Billy took us into the classroom to show us his unusual drawing. Billy had dove under Australia II, and now had drawn out on our chalk board her hull and "weird-looking keel". He had drawn out the complete shape of the Australia II's keel with the dimensions he had gotten by using a tailors tape-measure during the dive. As Billy described it, "It looked like a J/24 keel mounted upside down with fat wings off of it." Needless to say, we took quick notes and erased it all before the Australia II guys came wandering down the docks that morning (their sail/ gear storage was the other end of our RANGER shed).

We asked Billy to again dive under Australia II's skirts and double-check his measurements. He came back with the same numbers. We immediately went back to the J/Boats office the next day and, somewhat excitedly, explained to my Dad (Bob) what we discovered. We drew it out as close we could to scale and posted it on our walls - staring at it in disbelief. Since we knew Dennis Conner and his tactician Tom Whidden quite well (I had been Dennis' bowman for much of the 1979-1980 Freedom-Enterprise campaign), we invited them over to my Dad's home at "Beechbound" on Newport Harbor. It was easy to get them over since Dennis spent quite a bit of time at Fritz and Lucy Jewett's house next door (they were DC's syndicate sponsors/backers for years).

We described to Dennis and Tom what we did, what our friend Billy saw, and how we had double-checked our measurements. Needless to say, they were visibly "freaked out". At that point, DC and Tom asked us to stay "mum" about it and we gave them the drawings (we had a copy anyhow). To this day, we still wonder why the NYYC never protested them based on a measurement anomaly (the chain girth issue) many respects it comes back to the very old rumor from some old salts in Newport that DC wanted to "throw" the last race so he could be the hero to win it back for SDYC (the oft-cited reason why he gybed away at the top of the last run in the last race of the '83 Cup while winning quite handily).

Only the Good Lord only knows the motivations that DC and Tom had that summer (presumably noble ones)...but a protest never materialized based on their knowledge of what Australia II looked like that beautiful sunny day in mid-June at Beechbound. Intriguing, eh??

P.S.- BTW, my brother Drake, cousin Jeff, father Bob and Billy Curtis would be more than happy to corroborate this story.

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