December 2019 – January 2020


Australia 2.0

By Thornton McCamish
Image of Alan Bond and Bob Hawke

Alan Bond and Prime Minister Bob Hawke in Canberra, 1983. © AAP Images / National Archives of Australia

The America’s Cup winged keel and the transformation of a nation

He always said that no matter what else he achieved, this is what he would be remembered for. And so it proved during the commemorative celebrations that followed Bob Hawke’s death in May. At the centre of every TV highlights package and obituary was the moment in September 1983 that Australia II won the deciding race in the America’s Cup: the immortal image of our prime minister in that ludicrous blazer, being sprayed with champagne at the Royal Perth Yacht Club and declaring, in an overflow of elation, that “any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum”.

It’s probably fitting that this should be Hawke’s monument. To anyone old enough to remember 1983 it was hard to re-watch that footage and not feel, mixed in with the memorial solemnity, a kind of magical wonder. Not just for that moment, but for a leader whose intuitive reflex for the popular mood could so effortlessly unite us in euphoria.

As Australian achievements go, the 1983 America’s Cup had everything. It’s a legend now, long since sucked smooth by decades of fondly savoured nostalgia. It was a triumph of underdogs funded by a rough-as-guts millionaire, in a sport hardly anyone understood but everyone suddenly loved, over the industrial might and arrogance of America. It had Aussie ingenuity. The secret winged keel cooked up by self-taught genius Ben Lexcen – “Australia’s Leonardo da Vinci”, as skipper John Bertrand called him – was pretty much the stump-jump plough of 12-metre yacht engineering. And guts! In the best-of-seven series, and up against 132 years of American invincibility – the longest winning streak in sport – the Australia II crew fought back from three–one down to clinch an astonishing backs-to-the-wall victory in a show of pure grit. In his excitement Hawke called it “one of the greatest days in Australian history”. Maybe it was. In a forthcoming Netflix documentary series about the 10 greatest ever sporting achievements, the 1983 America’s Cup is the first episode.

It felt like a momentous day. It is probably the first major national event I can recall with the double vision of public and private memory. I was 12, and sailing had meant nothing to me before then. I must have been on the water a few times – I vaguely recall becoming adrift on Eildon Weir while windsurfing one humiliating afternoon and having to be towed miles back, trying to look like that had been my plan all along. Now sailing was all I could think about. I remember watching all the races on telly, watching the PM leading the scenes of celebration. When the cup itself toured the capital cities my dad took me to see it in Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall. Flanked by armed guards cradling mean-looking guns, it perched in its plexiglass cage like an exotic bird snatched in a raid. I remember my dad being dismayed by those guns.

But Australia II really got into my young reader’s soul with the publication, in September 1985, of John Bertrand’s book, Born to Win: The Power of a Vision. I read it at least half a dozen times that summer. I didn’t just read it, I chain-smoked it, getting to the end and then flipping straight back to the beginning. I couldn’t get enough of the demented focus of Bertrand’s quest to achieve perfection in sailing. I was mesmerised by the young sailor’s journey from the sun-speckled late­summer waters off the Melbourne suburb of Chelsea, on Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, to spray-whipped battles on distant oceans; I was deeply moved by his absurd dream.

When I was mistakenly made captain of my junior football team the following winter I saw my chance to do a Bertrand myself. We were an average team, and as a footballer I was more average than most, but no matter. We had Bertrand’s implacable will to win, which I proceeded to share with my teammates in long and rousing pre-match addresses. My teammates didn’t seem all that taken by my exhortations to greatness. We lost, then lost again. But that just presented the thrilling possibility of pulling off our own Australia II miracle and coming from behind on a surge of mental strength. Instead, we just kept losing. After each defeat we trudged back to our breezeblock rooms and sat around in a gloomy funk of wet wool and Deep Heat while I bellowed at my teammates. I recall, now, an atmosphere of awed embarrassment. “It would help if the captain could kick,” someone mildly observed, after what I’d thought was a stirring rant about the horrors of mediocrity.

My rants were a mistake, the mistake introverts make when they try to take things from books into real life. And I’d misread the manual anyway. “You just cannot say we will win because we will win because we will win,” Bertrand wrote, I now see, on page 55.

That raging footy captain, so fired with winningness, is a mystery to me now. Maybe the idea of needing to win filled some emergent adolescent anxiety. Maybe I was still caught up in the national elation I’d felt three years before. The America’s Cup had, after all, gone to the head of the whole country. “If Australia had put a man on the moon, the excitement could hardly have matched it,” Paul Barry wrote in his biography of syndicate chairman Alan Bond. “No-one could say it was only a yacht race.” No, it was a revelation. We could see ourselves through the admiring eyes of the world – or thought we could – and we liked it. A lot.

In hindsight, the 1983 America’s Cup looks like the marker buoy that the whole nation’s idea of itself rounded, to head in a bold new direction, swapping out the old sails for a glorious new set of go-get-’em spinnakers. The cup seemed to sweep aside the cringing colonial relation to Mother England. Now we were on the radar of the United States, that goliath of modernity. There was nothing we couldn’t do. Greg Norman stormed the golf world. Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee went bananas at the American box office. Crowded House and INXS joined Men at Work, whose “Down Under” had been Australia II’s anthem, on the global jukebox. Wherever you looked we were punching above our weight, which is always one of our favourite things to do.

Our economy, too, was ready to take on the world. In 1983 the Hawke government began what would be a series of historic economic reforms towards a more innovative, hard-working and competitive country. According to Bertrand, Hawke told him that the upsurge in national confidence following the America’s Cup was “a factor” in the timing of the floating of the Australian dollar, which came three months after the race, in December.

It made perfect sense that a new economic mood had somehow been carbonated by a sports event. The America’s Cup had always been as much about money as sport (though not so much for Australia II’s crew members, who were paid $12 a day). Bond never pretended otherwise. “Anyone who considers racing for the America’s Cup isn’t a business proposition is a bloody fool,” he said. It’s remarkable how readily the event was made to serve the new entrepreneurial mood. As historian Frank Bongiorno has pointed out, the business-friendly press instantly welcomed the victory as a triumph of bold enterprise. Even before the final race had been won, The Australian deplored the “tediously trendy attitude” that the cup was just a millionaires’ pissing contest. The Australian Financial Review argued that Bond had shown Australia was “a rough, egalitarian, success oriented society”, not a “lazy, isolated, self-indulgent society of parasites”.

Australia II made entrepreneurialism seem as Aussie as two-up. For Bond, it was time to rake in the chips he’d wagered over four America’s Cup campaigns. “The euphoria that followed had many people believing I was infallible,” he recalled later. “Money and opportunities were literally forced upon us.” Not just Bond, either. It was in 1983 that the Business Review Weekly’s Rich List first appeared. On it the cup-winner appeared alongside many of the corporate raiders – Christopher Skase, Robert Holmes à Court, Laurie Connell – who would become household names in the ’80s. Bertrand himself, who was chasing new dreams in the corporate world, urged Australians to celebrate entrepreneurs as public heroes. He also called for a tax regime that did not punish success, and for Australians to work harder.

We did work harder as the decade wore on. The dollar was working harder, too. Farmers and manufacturers were learning to compete without tariff protection. Women were going to get more opportunities in the workplace, and if that meant many households that once got along fine with one breadwinner now needed two to keep up with the risks and opportunities of the new future, well, welcome to the reality of an internationally competitive economy. Gross domestic product was through the roof. So suck it up, Sunshine, and buy yourself something nice. Bond bought himself a US$54 million painting.

When I saw that clip of Hawke again this year I was, like most people old enough to remember it, transported back to the disbelieving euphoria of that moment. But the nostalgia wasn’t just about Bob. It occurred to me that when he pronounced his larrikin benediction to sickie-chuckers all around the country, Hawke was celebrating an idea of who we were – proud, but not taking ourselves too seriously, ready to take the day off in the humorous spirit of non-strident patriotism with which he seemed to be suggesting it – that was already on the way out.

Life turned out to be tougher in a deregulated economy. Some people thought the national character hardened with it. The very popularity of a book called Born to Win suggested a rising anxiety about the importance of winning, especially given the alternative. I couldn’t help reflecting that, in 1981, only four years before Born to Win came out, the nonfiction hit in Australian bookstores had been Albert Facey’s account of a long, hardscrabble existence of humility and survival, entitled A Fortunate Life.

Of course, Australia II wasn’t responsible for status anxiety or late-stage capitalism any more than it was responsible for my spit-flecked teenage hysterics. Perhaps it was just too powerful a symbol to be left out of the story of the era. In 1987 critic Jim Davidson suggested that Crocodile Dundee – which I’d taken as a gift of relaxed Aussie decency to neurotic Manhattan (“That’s not a knife. That’s a knife”) – was “fully in character with the aggressive nationalism of the Age of the Winged Keel”. In the “total aggression” Bertrand demanded before battle, was there a seed of the “psychological disintegration” meted out by Steve Waugh’s great Test cricket sides? Did the boxing kangaroo, adapted and muscled-up as Australia II’s battle ensign, presage the “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” chant – that “form of national Tourette’s”, in George Megalogenis’s phrase?

The national Tourette’s is still with us, of course: long after the Americans won the cup back in Fremantle in 1987 in a brutal four–nil whitewash, and most of us lost any further interest in it; long after Paul Keating described the late ’80s slowdown as necessary to “de-spiv” an economy now running amok on other people’s money; long after Bondy’s empire blew up in his face and he, like a number of corner-cutting rich­listers of the era, went to prison.

I didn’t like the thought that a memory of collective delight now has a thread of gloating neoliberalism attached, like a bit of kelp snagged on Lexcen’s lovely keel. When had this shift happened? Or had nothing happened? Maybe I’d just been too naive in 1983 to see what the grown-ups had seen then and ever since: that Australia II’s victory showed exactly why we had to think like winners and embolden ourselves if we were going to thrive in a much more competitive world.

But it still felt like the boosters and thrivers had left grubby fingermarks on a beautiful memory. Perhaps that’s because what I was most nostalgic about wasn’t actually the cup. It was Bertrand’s book – a book that contained, amid the fighting fury of the races, a more complex, more ambivalent account of the cup and the Australia that managed to win it.

At least I thought it did.

My confidence that in returning to Born to Win I’d rediscover a more equivocal, more literary, account of Australia II’s significance faded fractionally when I realised that Bertrand hadn’t written the book alone. In fact, he hadn’t really written it: he spoke it into the tape recorder of his co-author, Patrick Robinson, an English writer based in the US. The two met several times over a year or so, in Melbourne and New York. Robinson would shape the resulting transcripts into chapters that he read out on the phone to Bertrand. He signalled the end of each chapter by playing Men at Work’s “Down Under” down the line. “I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was doing,” Robinson has since admitted. “I just kept doing my best.”

He needn’t have worried. The resulting book more or less immediately sold 100,000 copies, and I wasn’t the only reader deeply stirred by it. Football great Wayne Schimmelbusch, for instance, said he “could not stop crying” when he read Born to Win in hospital recovering from knee surgery – it reminded him of North Melbourne’s 1977 VFL premiership.

But it wasn’t a universal crowd-pleaser. There was trouble with some Australian reviewers, who found it egotistical (“The Bible with Bertrand in the central role”), and with some former comrades too. Bond tossed it aside after a few pages. He wasn’t an avid reader anyway, certainly not of history – in ’83 he had insisted that Australia II would still win from three–one down: “it’s going to be like Gallipoli” – and a book about the cup triumph that wasn’t only about him was incompatible with his mogul’s amour-propre. More upsettingly for Bertrand, newspapers reported that Lexcen, an old and dear friend, was so offended by what he’d heard about the book he was considering legal action over its description of him as “childlike”, and Bertrand’s claim that technical snafus and breakages – “Bennyurisms” – were notorious among the crews of his boats, including Australia II.

Steeled for a bumpy trip back to the ’80s, I opened my musty old copy of Born to Win. Then I read the whole thing through in about four hours.

A few things in the book had gathered a bit of dust. Pretty much everyone involved in the campaign is white and male; when, at one point, Bertrand wonders if his young sons would be racing yachts in the year 2000, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that his young daughter might also be doing so. Crew member John Longley is known as “Chink”, Born to Win unblushingly explains, “because of his narrow eyes”. And those pre-race pep talks, so entrancing to my younger self, haven’t aged that well. They may not be “masterpieces of triteness”, as one reviewer wrote, but they’re not exactly Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech either.

But the races are still as thrilling as they ever were. The tension builds implacably, from high hopes to the edge of near-certain defeat, to the seemingly miraculous triumph. And what is almost as gripping, in retrospect, is the single-mindedness of the entire campaign. The folk memory of a seat-of-the-pants victory is belied by the meticulous planning, technical ambition and continuous refinement of equipment, strategy and training. Lexcen did most of the work developing his keel not in some back shed, but in one of the world’s leading test facilities, in the Netherlands, and with considerable input from Dutch engineers. Right up to the final race, the Australia II team used innovative computer models, as well as the crew’s old-salt know-how, to cut and recut sails, in an unceasing search for fractional gains in boat speed. The mind game was high performance, too. With a sport psychologist on board, Bertrand subjected his crew members to profiling to see how they would perform under critical pressure. I remember regretting in 1986 that we didn’t have time for psych profiling in the under-14s.

My re-read did produce some surprises, however. I had barely opened the book when the hero of Richard Bach’s 1970s novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, flapped out of the pages like an elderly apparition. How had I forgotten? Bach’s parable of self-realisation was hugely inspiring to Bertrand. It describes the titular bird’s yearning to fly as fast as it is possible to fly, a quest powered by discipline, arduous training, visualisation and unswerving self-belief. His need to surpass all conventional limits rises ex nihilo from his deepest being: he imposes his inborn need to redefine the possible in the air, just as young Bertrand would impose his on the water. I loved all that back then. In the lead-up to the final races, Bertrand had talked to the Australia II crew about the lessons of the seagull. In the most stressful nights of the campaign, he put on John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” and read particularly inspiring passages from Bach before he went to sleep: “For each of them, the most important thing in living was to reach out and touch perfection in that which they most loved to do.”

Out came my old copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. His spirit still soars, I guess, but much in the same way that a Kenny G sax solo does. Perhaps I’ve lost some faith in winningness in the past few decades. There’s a touch of Ayn Rand in his seraphic indifference to more knockabout birds, the ordinary gulls who’d rather hop about in food scraps than risk everything in a vertical dive at Mach 2. Still, it turns out that much of the texture of my memories of Born to Win – the salt spray, depthless indigo skies and lonely winds – actually come from Bach’s book. And so does some of the dreamy, misfit solitude that drew me to Born to Win as a teenager: the idea of an existence devoted to a single purpose, unsullied by compromises or workaday duties, or anything much, really, to do with winning or fighting. Or making money.

There’s not as much prelapsarian youthfulness in Born to Win as I expected to find. But it’s there in the early chapters, where Bertrand recalls growing up in an ordinary suburban home on Port Phillip Bay, in a happy family just getting by, but with enough to make a young sailor’s dreams affordable. Bertrand’s youth reads like a soft­focus slideshow of a neighbourly, optimistic, communitarian existence, in which parents drive kids to competitions, scrape together funds for new gear and trips in the Ford Zephyr Six, and the Bertrand boys spend happy afternoons sanding down the hulls of ever-faster boats in the backyard. Entire summers go by mucking around at the sailing club. There’s so much time. Everyone the young Bertrand raced with and against, including Olympic veterans, were part-timers. He seems so free as he pursues his innocent monomania, winning state, then national, titles, moving up through different classes of dinghy, from Sabots to Finns to the “fantastically fast” Vaucluse Juniors, and eventually travelling the world, gazing out on storied waters in Italy, Finland and Germany, trying to read the unfamiliar breezes. He’s always broke. The notion of honour comes up often. “My goals were of a lofty nature, those of the old-fashioned amateur sportsman … We practised because we loved it … We did not do it for domination but to achieve sailing perfection.”

Alongside the hard-headed drive to succeed, the warlike business of the America’s Cup, here was a gentle countercurrent. Not just a disinterested joy in doing what you love, but also a cherishing of a less anxious time. Before the races on Port Phillip Bay in early 1983 to determine Australia’s cup challenger, Bertrand takes a reflective moment near his childhood home. “I stood there in the hot sun of the deserted beach, this little patch of sand and tide that had given my grandfather his living and shaped my entire destiny.” Time had passed with terrifying swiftness. “Thirty years had passed since we first lashed our parachute sail to the mast, 30 years since I had stood here with my grandpa and listened to him pinpoint the time of the freshening breeze, watched his bright blue eyes staring out of that weather-beaten fisherman’s face …” In Born to Win, winning isn’t quite the full story. Reflecting on a new level of cashed-up ruthlessness in the America’s Cup campaigns of 1974, Bertrand writes: “when sports competitions take such a turn towards old professionalism, they never return to what they were. And people become the victims, the debris all along the path to glory.”

But it’s true that the book doesn’t have much time for misgivings. The old good-enough Australia, the Australia sheltered behind traditions of self­deprecation, provincial self-doubt and sentimentally cherished defeats, has to go. Or it does if you’re serious about beating the Americans for the first time in 132 years.

I wasn’t sure where that left me.

“Delighted to assist,” Bertrand emailed. A couple of days later, there he was, now aged 72, seeming not at all surprised to be sitting in a cafe discussing someone else’s memories of his 35-year-old book. People come up to him all the time to tell him how the book has helped them, he said. Cancer survivors, terminally ill people. The parents of young athletes. Just the day before, a man had stopped him in the street. “He told me how he had read and re-read the book, and how it had been very important to his life,” he said. “So I’m very proud of that.” Lifetime sales are around 200,000. The book is still on the reading lists of MBA programs in the US.

The title, it turns out, was the publisher’s idea. It was originally going to be “To Take You Home”, a line from Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Born to Win didn’t sit quite right with Bertrand at the time – he worried it would sound arrogant to Australian ears. He finally agreed to it because, ultimately, he wanted the book to legitimise winning. “If I couldn’t celebrate success at that point, having won the America’s Cup, then nobody could.”

It struck me as I listened that few people can be so deeply embedded in a sacred national memory as Bertrand is. He had just spent three days being quizzed by filmmakers working on the Netflix documentary about Australia II. What was that like? “Great. Very emotional.” It made him realise that level of intensity required to win the cup was a form of insanity. “I knew myself that if we’d lost I would have kept going till we won. That was the level of craziness that was required. I would have gone again, and it probably would have blown my marriage.” The seven-race series left him with a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. It was six months, he told me, before he was able to go to a dinner party and be able to talk about nothing, like a normal person.

After the cup Bertrand toyed briefly with politics, but eventually threw himself into the challenges of the corporate world. There were very good times, and some pretty bad ones. He was chair of the syndicate whose boat, oneAustralia, sank spectacularly off San Diego at the 1995 America’s Cup with Bertrand on board. But he regards setbacks as a chance to learn and come back stronger. Today, Bertrand is a businessman, philanthropist and motivational speaker; he seems to be a compulsive mentor, too. I sensed that if someone’s having a real crack at something, whatever it is – swimming, floating a company, writing an article about memories of an old book – he’s happy to help if he can. Why not? He still feels, he told me, “tremendously fortunate to have been involved in an achievement that this country is still so proud of”.

What he remembers now about writing the book with Robinson in 1984 is how gruelling it was. A great experience, but “a bleed”. “If I hadn’t written it, I wouldn’t have gotten it out of my system. I was able to purge my system and get on with my life.” He did feel some people misrepresented the book when it came out, particularly some journalists. The troubles with Ben Lexcen and Alan Bond quickly blew over, but apparently neither man ever did read Born to Win. In fact, I was startled to learn, Bertrand hasn’t either – not from start to finish.

I flashed back to that summer when I’d read it over and over. Well, they say history is written by the victors – they don’t say it’s read by the victors. Perhaps they’re too busy. But Bertrand has clearly thought a lot about the impact Australia II had on the country. “We built a very high-performance team that performed when it really counted on the world stage,” he said. “I think if there’s one legacy, it’s that we were able to legitimise success in this country, without people knocking you for it.” The win gave the country a huge injection of confidence. “How can you put a value on that? I think it was the growing up of the country in many ways … Bob Hawke was the first to say: ‘This is the new Australia coming forward.’ ”

What excites Bertrand now – and it really excites him – are all the opportunities for young Australians to achieve their own great successes on the world stage. But wasn’t there anything he still valued about the “old” Australia, the one before competition and efficiency became everything, so fondly evoked in the early pages of Born to Win? “Well, I was part of that amateur world, just dreaming about perfection as much as one can. There was no money involved. People did what they did because they loved what they were doing.” More innocent times? “Well, naive. That’s the beautiful naivety of the Australia I grew up in. But you can’t stop progress. In terms of our inability to compete worldwide, we had to move forward.”

We talked for an hour. By the end I was half­thinking I should hurry home and get cracking on my own internet start-up. But I was also wondering about the Australian inclination to leave the past alone and just get on with it – nostalgia is okay but looking at the past too closely isn’t going to get you far. There’s a virtue in that. But it also means we don’t think very hard about how much we’ve changed, or when the path we’re on became the only one we could imagine.

It finally dawned on me that my hero of decades past has only ever really been interested in the future. When I go to bed I mostly toss and turn worrying about all the mistakes I’ve made. When Bertrand goes to bed, he told me, he pictures the sail of the yacht he races these days, willing it into a more perfect shape in his mind, trying to make the bloody boat go faster.

Thornton McCamish

Thornton McCamish is a Melbourne-based journalist and author. His most recent book is Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead.

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