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Peter Stoneberg: My conversation with 1983 Cup winner and AC legend John Bertrand

I had a wonderful conversation here in Bermuda yesterday with one of the great legends of the America’s Cup, John Bertrand (AUS). John is famous for skippering AUSTRALIA II to that epic 1983 Cup win, becoming the first Challenger to win the Cup and breaking the longest winning streak in sports – NYYC's 132-year reign as the Defender. It was the famous era of the "Boxing Kangaroo," the Men at Work blaring "I Come From the Land Downunder" on their tender's huge speakers, and the exuberant leadership of their team principal, the late entrepreneur Alan Bond. The Australian team came from down 3-1 to beat Dennis Conner and his team on LIBERTY 4-3, with a combination of pluck and determination, excellent sailing, great sails (often overlooked), and, of course, their revolutionary winged keel.

PS: John, please tell us about your incredible victory in 1983.

JB: We played a real psychological game in the Cup in ’83. We knew that to beat Dennis on the water we needed a special edge. Ben Lexcen designed what was revolutionary at the time: the winged keel. I think we were the first team to actually keep our hull and keel hidden, it drove the Americans crazy, and I think it gave our guys the confidence to actually believe that we could win.

PS: What do you think of the current America’s Cup and the America’s Cup Class catamarans?

JB: I’m a bit of a traditionalist, but I love what the America’s Cup has become with the wings and foils and flying cats. The Cup has been a technology game since 1851, and these extreme boats represent the best of technology today. Parts of the boats are one-design, but so much is open to engineering creativity and innovation. I’m an engineer, so I really love the technology that goes into making these boats fly around the course at nearly 50 knots, but also to be maneuverable enough to match race. The doubters have been proven wrong in that these boats are not just drag racers, but also can maneuver and match race better than anyone could ever imagine. Now that the boats keep foiling through tacks, the tacks are much less costly so it adds immensely to the match racing tactics and strategy.

PS: We’re standing inside the Land Rover BAR team base, and it is rather a somber mood here since they were eliminated today by Emirates Team New Zealand. What do you make of LRBAR's performance in AC35?

JB: I think they did a great job given the time and money they had to work with. It’s very difficult to do well in the Cup the first time out; in fact, it took us several tries to win it. I understand that the Land Rover and the other BAR sponsors are continuing into the next Cup, so they will roll right into the next campaign with valuable experience and knowledge from this Cup cycle.

PS: I enjoyed seeing you in San Francisco recently and it seemed you had the entire Australian National Swim Team in tow. I didn’t know that you were a swimmer?

JB: I’m really not, although my mum was quite a good swimmer in her day. In fact, the swim team was not performing up to their potential and they asked me to become President of Swim Australia and see if we could do better. We were in San Francisco to visit several top technology companies and universities to see what we could learn about applying technology to the sport of swimming. It is quite incredible to see the innovation happening in the Silicon Valley and we think some of it can be applied to sport. We’ve also established the Australian Institute of Sport where our Australian athletes can train together and share best practices to enhance everyone’s ability to win.

PS: John, if you were a betting man, who would you wager to win the Cup in Bermuda?

JB: Well, ETNZ looks awfully strong to win the Challenger Playoffs. For them to come back after the pitchpole shows their resiliency, resolve and high skill level. Of course Oracle Team USA will be very, very tough in the Match. They have won it twice before and have to be the favorite.

PS: John, thank you for your time and enjoy your stay in Bermuda.

JB: Thank you, Peter.

A couple weeks ago our longtime friend and 1983 Cup winning skipper, and AC legend, John Bertrand (AUS) was passing through SF for business meetings on his way to Bermuda. John stopped in at St Francis Yacht Club for dinner with an entourage of Aussie sports executives (see Peter's story). We bumped into each other in the Trophy Lounge, and he kindly agreed to tell some of our St Francis friends about the famous wing-keel of AUSTRALIA II, and the camouflage paint job they used to make it look like a conventional keep, using the half-model that is displayed with the other 12M era Cup contenders. JB and Commodore Stoneberg also connected that evening, and agreed to meet up if possible in Bermuda. Happily, for SAILING ILLUSTRATED, they did. Thanks, Peter, for the interview and story! –TFE

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