Fremantle 1987, Western Australia: a lightning passage!
After the historic win of Australia II in 1983, the America’s Cup took an immense journey to Fremantle, Australia. The monumental change was equally apparent whether you were measuring in kilometres, facilities, history, or culture. From the rarefied air of Newport and New York, the home of the Cup was now an Australian frontier town, Fremantle, described at the time as a sleepy town with old-fashioned charm.
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Sir Frank Packer, 1962
From the time Cup racing resumed after a long break in 1958, it was clear that Australia had set its sights on the Auld Mug. From down under, the America’s Cup must have seemed impossible to grasp…and yet, the Australians were thinking about it. In 1962, Sir Frank Packer was asked why he thought he could win the Cup. His answer was short and to the point: “Alcohol and delusions of grandeur…”
Alan Bond, 1983
In the event, the Australians would take 21 years and seven challenges (from 1962 to 1983) to realise their dream. After Packers three attempts, Alan Bond took over the reigns in 1974. It would take Bond four challenges of his own before he could lift the Cup. On September 26th, 1983, following the historic win by Australia II for the Royal Perth Yacht Club, Bond announced the next Cup would be sailed in Fremantle – or ‘Freo’ – fairly close to Perth but quite far from anything else…
The British crown
To understand Fremantle, it is necessary to go back to May 2nd, 1829. The English Captain Charles Howe Fremantle (1800-1869) landed from HSM Challenger just steps from the mouth of the Swan River. The Captain claimed “formal possession of the whole of the west coast of New Holland in the name of his Britannic Majesty.”
In Fremantle in 1829, yachting was not a concern of the first pioneers, although it was a pastime that many would come to practice. The New York Yacht Club was only founded in 1844, but far to the east of Fremantle a first regatta was officially organised in 1838 in Hobart, Tasmania. In 1865 the Perth Yacht Club was formed, although some passionate sailors had been racing on the Swan River for at least 15 years before that.
From convicts to the gold rush
Round House, Fremantle
From the 1830’s onwards, the development of Fremantle continued, mostly thanks to the arrival of convicts from Britain, who provided a steady stream of cheap manpower to work on the first buildings in the city. The Round House (1830-1831), the old prison, is one such example which still dominates the city. A tunnel was dug under the building in 1837 for the Fremantle Whaling Company allowing the whalers to reach the town by High Street from the pier and from the beach of Bathers Bay.
But the harbour stagnated. Then “we had the Gold Rush days (in the 1890’s) when an enormous number of people landed in Fremantle before they made their way east to the Kalgoorlie gold fields,” explained Mayor John Cattalini in 1986. “That had a dramatic effect on the structure of the city.”
Setting Fremantle’s clock
Fremantle returned to ‘hibernation’ for nearly half a century, until the victory of Australia II provided a dramatic wake-up call. Mayor John Cattalini and with him the government of Western Australia jumped on the opportunity. “The opportunity is to have another period like that (the gold rush). The Cup represents some incredible opportunities for Fremantle.”
The city underwent a massive face-lift operation to get ready for the Cup. Public and private money streamed in and Freo experienced a fabulous and unhoped-for economic boom. The town upgraded its look, business was transformed and a new service industry developed. A new marina was built up next to the very active lobster fishing port.
“The clock on the neo-Gothic Victorian town hall hardly ever told the correct time, but no-one thought it important. Now the building and the clock are being renovated. The story is repeated everywhere,” concluded journalist Keith Wheatley, explaining the sudden metamorphosis of Fremantle with the arrival of the America's Cup.
This concept of “putting watches right” was the first example of a scene that would be repeated and even built upon in Auckland and Valencia. Unlike Newport, which had had the time to get ready for the Cup and make improvements with each edition, Fremantle (as would be the case later in Auckland and Valencia) had to face a real tidal wave of change between September 1983 and February 1987. Fremantle was required to welcome 17 teams in quest of the America’s Cup (four defence candidates and 13 challengers from six countries), which included an armada of 29 12-metres. To cap it all off, a small army of journalists from around the world invaded the city, along with thousands of spectators and America’s Cup fans.
An appointment with the Fremantle Doctor…
“Sailing off Fremantle was a whole new ball game for challenger and defender alike. In the end only one boat and one crew would be able to say it had totally mastered the mysteries of Gage Roads,” explained Alan Sefton just before the America’s Cup race in January 1987. No 12-metre had raced in such wind and sea conditions: during the southern hemisphere summer, conditions were dominated by the Fremantle Doctor (nickname given to this thermal wind), which blows each afternoon, regularly hitting 18 to 25 knots, and kicking up an impressive swell. Dennis Conner, for one, understood what would be required. He began training in 1984 in Hawaii, where wind and sea conditions closely mimicked what he would face in Fremantle.
Intense implication for a lightning passage
During the Louis Vuitton Cup and the America’s Cup the spectacle and the sport converged at an all-time high point. Nobody can forget the sight of the heavy 12-metres plunging up and down in the massive waves, with spray and foam flying into the air. The public followed the races on television - this edition was the most heavily televised Cup to date - and the spectators were numerous both on the quays and aboard boats encouraging the competitors.
The city itself rose to the occasion, providing a generous welcome to teams and overseas spectators alike. Locals easily transferred their support from Alan Bond to Kevin Parry and his Kookaburra III when it won the defender trials over Bond’s entry. More importantly, Australians were gracious in defeat, celebrating Dennis Conner’s ‘comeback’ victory. It the America’s Cup made only a brief stay at Fremantle, everyone involved agreed that it was as good for the Cup as it was for the city, which still enjoys fall-out from the event 20 years later.
Dennis Conner’s victory would bring the America’s Cup to another venue and by now it was clear the America’s Cup had the travel bug. If the Cup was coming back to the United States, it was going to the opposite corner from New York. It’s new home was San Diego, where it would stay for eight years.