The 34th America's Cup Match doesn't officially start until September 7, but aleady legends of the event are gathering in San Francisco. On Friday night the oneAustralia team of 1995 gathered for a reunion and last night it was the turn of the Australia II squad to reminisce and "tell untruths" as one crew member put it. The entire crew, including reserves, were here in San Francisco, along with team owner Alan Bond.
The America's Cup Event Authority took advantage of their presence to remind us all of the fateful day on March 6, 1995, when oneAustralia was trailing Team New Zealand by about 200 metres when the boat broke in half and sank. In case you've forgotten or were too young to remember, you can view the video here.
The ACEA assembled three key members of the incident on the stage in the media centre. Kiwi commentator Peter Montgomery, who can be heard in the video calling the action, moderated the panel which consisted of skipper John Bertrand, designer/tactician Iain Murray and Team New Zealand crew member Murray Jones.
Describing the conditions on the day, Iain Murray said that boats were designed to sail in the usual San Diego conditions of 8-12 knots but on this day the wind was blowing 25 to 30 knots. The competitors were asked whether they wanted to sail and, Iain said, "As with any New Zealand-Australia sporting contest, our egos got ahead of our brains and off we charged.”
The boat came around the bottom mark and chased the Kiwis up the beat but then there was a bang, the forestay went slack, the backstay did likewise and the boat began to break in the centre. You can see the chaos in the video.
On the Kiwi boat, Murray Jones said they quickly realised something serious was wrong with the Aussies: "Someone said 'something’s wrong with their forestay' because we saw the luff of the genoa go slack. We thought it might’ve been a broken runner or whatever. Everyone was looking under the boom and lost focus on their jobs. The next thing, oneAustralia’s folding up and disappearing.
"On our boat it went extremely quiet. We were concerned that someone was in the boat. We had no idea what was going on, it was a horrible feeling. In the end the radio came on with race communications that everyone was ok.”
I knew that Mark Richards, nowdays the skipper of five times Sydney-Hobart winner Wild Oats XI, was one of the last to step off the boat but until now I wasn't aware of why he stayed aboard so long. It turns out that fellow bowman Don McCracken couldn't swim and Ricko was trying to persuade him to jump into the cold San Diego waters.
The 17 crew members were picked up by three boats, which included the Kiwi chase boat. John Bertrand said he did a head count and only got 16. It was difficult because the crew were spread across the three boats. He quickly recounted and breathed a sigh of relief to discover that everyone was safe.
“The project represented the pride of Australia,” said Bertrand. “We had a $26 million program, which was a big budget back then. We had Iain Murray, Rod Davis, the best of the best.
“When the boat broke and sank it was a horrifying experience, something that we’d never contemplated. We went through the contingency plans for a mast breaking or someone getting injured, but a plan for the boat breaking in two and sinking was off our radar screen.”
Bertrand related how he got a call from Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating asking what he needed. Bertrand said that he needed the insurance cheque worth $3 million to rebuild the team’s pace boat and get back on the water. Following intervention from on high, the managing director of the insurance company flew to San Diego and handed over the cheque personally, so the campaign could go on.
OneAustralia returned to the water in AUS-31 and advanced to the final of the Louis Vuitton Cup. There they met Team New Zealand, which again was too strong and went on to whitewash Team Dennis Conner, becoming only the third nation ever to hold the Auld Mug.
Bertrand said he was proud of his team’s resilience in the face of adversity.
“We’re talking about life on the edge. People focus on the boat breaking, but that’s the reality of living on the edge,” he said. “I wrote a letter published in most newspapers, on the fact that we are living on the edge with a project like that and we were proud of it. Like in F1, engines blow, cars crash and people get killed, but that doesn’t stop the world of F1, and tragedies don’t stop the world of the America’s Cup. Even though our boat broke and sank, that’s the game we were playing. If we weren’t on edge, we weren’t going to be competitive.
“From my perspective, I’m proud that that’s what the America’s Cup represents.”
- Roger McMillan in San Francisco
FOOTNOTE: In a classic case of ambush marketing, the next day the New Zealand Herald ran a full page advertisement for Steinlager beer. It featured a large photograph of oneAustralia sinking, with the Fosters logo on the sail just visible above the waves. The headline ran, "Only one thing goes down quicker than an ice cold Steinlager."