John Bertrand was both excited and apprehensive about returning to Newport, Rhode Island, USA, to compete in the 2014 Etchells World Championship.
He had not sailed there since he skippered Australia II to its historic victory in the 1983 America’s Cup.
Grant Simmer, his navigator in the 1983 Cup, was to be his mainsheet hand and Andrew Palfrey, who had been with him when he won the 2010 Etchells Worlds at Howth, Ireland, the bowman.
Bertrand shipped his boat Triad to the USA to contest two warm-up regattas in Newport in a very serious as well as sentimental world championship campaign.
Triad placed a worthy seventh overall, best of the 18 Australian crews in the massive 95-boat fleet sailing on Rhode Island Sound. Next best Australian was The Hole Way, skippered by Cameron Miles, in 18th place with some good results after a 20 per cent penalty for being over the starting line in the last minute in race one and a black flag disqualification from race two.
The size of the fleet meant that consistency was hard to achieve for all but the winner Bill Hardesty from San Francisco, who had the nine-race series won after race eight.
The win was Hardesty’s third in the Etchells Worlds. He put together a talented crew with match-racing world champion Taylor Canfield and top women’s match racer Stephanie Robie, both 25-year-olds and trimmer Marcus Eagan.
Bertrand’s team made a good start to the series to stand fourth overall after three races with 4-10-5 placings then slipped from contention with 28-27-23-53-43, before a great last race second-placing after leading around the first mark.
“Basically it became obvious we had speed problem in the mid-range wind strengths of 12-14 knots and a big chunk of the regatta was in that wind speed and we could never really solve it with the sail inventory that we used,” Bertrand said.
“The communication on the boat was quite fantastic. We consistently had excellent starts but we just couldn’t hold our lines. Instead of taking bows as we normally do, we were taking sterns; it was a struggle.
“In addition, the depth of the fleet was the strongest I have ever seen in an Etchells World Championship. At least half the fleet, maybe more, had professionals, full-time sailors, on the boats as tacticians or strategists.
“Other than Bill Hardesty, who just sailed a magnificent regatta in terms of consistency, the rest of us had huge variations in our performances because the quality of the fleet was so good. It was hard to punch back from a bad result.
“Off the starting line you could lose 20 boats on a shift either way. The Etchells chop the air up dramatically so it was a washing machine back there.
“But we had a great time. Andrew and Grant are highly-competitive people and they were frustrated that we didn’t do better but the vibe on the boat was fantastic; I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
Bertrand’s wife Rasa and Simmer’s wife Alexis, who had both been in Newport through the 1983 campaign, went back with them and Kate Palfrey, wife of Andrew who now lives at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, also joined the party.
Bertrand, while looking forward to returning had reservations, remembering the tensions of 1983, with the prolonged challenge by the New York Yacht Club to the legality of Ben Lexcen’s innovative wing-keeled design as well as enduring the building tension as Australia II recovered from 1-3 down to win the America’s Cup 4-3 in the best-of-seven race series.
In the countdown to the final races the Australia II syndicate, concerned for Bertrand’s safety in the increasingly volatile situation, stopped him from riding his flash 10-speed Shogun blue racing bike through the streets of Newport after dark. He and Rasa pulled their three young children, Lucas, Andre and Sunshine out of school.
“It had been pretty heavy stuff here in Newport,” Bertrand said. “For me initially it was like re-visiting Vietnam where the battles were won and lost.”
But Newport, these days an even livelier traditional seaport town, was welcoming. The weather was sunny, the breeze on Rhode Island Sound consistently moderate and the New York Yacht Club, which hosted the Etchells Worlds, welcomed Bertrand and Simmer back in a very special way.
The club hosted Bertrand’s crew and their wives at a dinner in Station Ten on the grounds of the club’s Harbour Court facility in Newport. The small gothic building was the NYYC’s first clubhouse, opened in 1845 on land in Hoboken New Jersey, it was donated by the club’s first commodore, John Cox Stevens.
It was where Stevens first hatched the plan to win the 100-Guinea Cup, to become the America’s Cup, with the schooner America in England in 1851. It served as the centre of the club’s activities for 23 years.
Later it was moved to Long Island where it became known as Station 10. The club maintained 11 such stations along the east coast racing and cruising routes from New York, where members could call to provision their yachts, send a letter or make a telephone call.
The club’s Vice Commodore A.Rives Potts Jr, Rear Commodore Philip A.Lotz and three past commodores welcomed Bertrand’s party. “So we had a fantastic time,” said Bertrand. “It was classy, not only a privilege but historic for us to be in that particular room and being made to feel welcome.”
Newport, a town with a population of about 25,000 sited on Narragansett Bay, has evolved from the boisterous and slightly rough days of the earlier Australian America’s Cup challenges with the presence of a large navy base, attendant bars and strip joints, into a desirable residential town and tourist destination with an estimated 3.5 million visitors each year.
The navy is largely gone; apartment buildings occupy the former site of the Newport Shipyard, which hosted the America’s Cup boats in the years up to 1983. The shipyard has re-located to Goat Island, which used to be part of the naval facility.
The liveliest tourist area of the waterfront precinct is still on or behind Bannister’s Wharf and Bowen’s Wharf off Thames St. Charter sailing and motor boats, including a magnificent schooner, depart from the wharves each day.
Watering holes and restaurants remembered from America’s Cup 1983 and previously including The Black Pearl, Clarke Cooke House/Candy Store, are still there. So is O’Brien’s pub, the small bar further along Thames St that the Australia II crew favoured as a retreat. Then, it hid behind one small entry door. Now, it has a big outdoor area opening to the street.
The Bertrands revisited the row of modest two-storied weatherboard houses in Dennison St, up the hill from Thames Street, where they lived through the 1983 campaign.
For the first time in Australia’s America’s Cup campaigning, wives, children and girl friends were allowed to stay with crew members in rented accommodation outside the Founders Hall crew house, provided they paid the bills.
John rented a little apartment there for Rasa and their three children; Hugh and Jeanine Treharne with their two children rented the apartment below them in the same house. In a house almost opposite were John and Jenny Longley, Skip Lissiman and his girlfriend Ginger.
The Bertrands and Simmers also called into The Armory, the fortress-like building on Thames St built for the Rhode Island National Guard in 1894, which used to serve as the press centre through the America’s Cups. “My heart started to beat as I saw it in a flashback to 31 years ago,” said Bertrand.
These days the building houses an antique market place. “It’s now filled with tiny stalls, like a flea market, but all of that was a little bit away from my mind, said Bertrand. “I saw all the chairs and the stage, the interviewers and the interviewees. It’s amazing how your memory goes back.”
Bertrand also recalled the struggle he had navigating the crowd packed into narrow Thames St to reach the final press conference at The Armory. “I remember being on a Harley Davidson motor cycle with a state trooper trying to get through the crowd; Rasa on the back and me hanging onto the state trooper, to the final press conference that night. All those memories flooded back to me.”
The major change to Newport’s sailing scene and to the New York Yacht Club since 1983 has been the commissioning of Harbour Court, the club’s first permanent waterfront facility, centred on a Renaissance Norman-style mansion standing on eight acres, in 1988.
The main building had been completed in 1906 for the family of John Nicholas Brown, Commodore of the Club from 1952-54.
While the Etchells were based at Sail Newport on nearby Fort Adams, Harbour Court housed the race centre for the worlds. It has 19 bedrooms and five apartments for members, their families and friends, indoor and outdoor restaurants and sailing administration offices which service a busy sailing program.
Bertrand said the NYYC Commodore (Thomas J.Harrington) told him that the best thing that ever happened to the club in the big picture was to lose the Cup because it had to get on with not just being focused on one event.
“They acquired the new estate, they run multiple regattas every year and the club is probably the most active sailing club in the United States now. They are very much sailing driven, the membership has tripled and they are very proud of what they have achieved,” Bertrand said.
Newport Harbour buzzes with sailboats every day of the week through summer, threaded by training
fleets of Optimists, 420s and Laser dinghies; J22 and Rhodes 19 keelboats sailing from Sail Newport, a non-profit organisation founded in 1983 to provide public access to sailing.
Its training for youngsters is a bring-your-own boat program. The J22s and Rhodes 19 can be rented for three, six or nine hour periods. And the J22s have Tuesday twilight spinnaker racing series where crews walk-on and walk-off the boats for one to three races around buoys each evening for a modest US$650 charter fee for the series.
After the 1983 America’s Cup Bertrand took a ten-year break from sailing to concentrate on a career and family life. “I had no interest in sailing, there was no challenge. We’d climbed Everest. It was better for me to get on with the next stage of my life.”
Then in the early 1990s two friends, Ernie Lawrence and Bill Browne, talked him into forming a partnership to sail an Etchells. “The Etchells is the only boat that I race these days and I don’t do much of that; I’ll do a national championship, maybe a state championship and a world championship. I don’t do any club racing,” says Bertrand.
“To some degree it shows. I am not up with the young guys who put in the time. But the Etchells is just a fabulous class. To me, it is the top level of racing in Australia before you go pro, in the Olympics or the America’s Cup.”
This article was first published in the October-November 2014 issue of Australian Sailing + Yachting.