‘Untold: The Race of the Century’ presents the compelling story of how an Australian yacht crew dared to compete and end America’s 132-year dominance in the prestigious sailing competition, the America’s Cup. The documentary film, which is also the final presentation of “Untold” this season, interviews the team that achieved this near impossible feat, as they fondly remember their efforts and eventual triumph. As always with the case of “Unspeakable” documentaries, “The Race of the Century” is a carefully packaged piece for any sports history lover or even underdog.
What is the America’s Cup?
The America’s Cup is essentially a prestigious tournament in the sports of sailing and is also the oldest international sporting competition that is still going on. From its inception in 1851 until 1983, the United States of America, represented by the New York Yacht Club, won the competition alone twenty-four times, making it the longest unbeaten streak of any modern sports. The format of the competition pits the previous winner as the title defender against a different team, representing the country in which the yacht was designed and manufactured, posing as the challengers and trying to win the trophy. The tough team must also first participate in a tournament with the other participating countries and win it to qualify for the finals and face the defending champions. The final race series has 7 races in total, with the team winning 4 races, the first winning the America’s Cup.
For 132 years, however, the trophy had been won every time by Team USA, and the silverware had unofficially taken up residence at the headquarters of the New York Yacht Club. Such was the Americans’ confidence and high expectations of their team that it was widely believed that the first captain to lose the America’s Cup to another team would also lose his mind with it, at least in the figurative sense. While many other countries have made the finals over the years, no one could break the streak until John Bertrand captained his team in 1983 and achieved the unthinkable.
How did the Australia Ii team achieve their glorious triumph?
John Bertrand remembers watching or rather hearing the 1962 America’s Cup on the radio for the first time, and learning about the excitement surrounding the famous tournament. As John learned the techniques of sailing, the idea of captaining a boat and competing in the America’s Cup became his only real goal. After completing his initial training in Australia, John moved to the United States to study for a Master of Science at MIT. It was during his studies in engineering and aeronautics that he believed for the first time that he could realize his dream. John Bertrand first competed as a crew member of the yacht representing Australia in the 1974 America’s Cup. The United States swept the series 4-0 that year and also in the 1977 edition of it. He was also part of the Australian squad in the 1980 edition of the tournament, in which the Americans again successfully defended the trophy. During all those three years, distinguished navigator Dennis Conner was part of the American team and also captained his team in the 1980 America’s Cup. John Bertrand was quite familiar with the skills that Conner possessed, and his interest in leading the Australian side in 1983 may have been encouraged by his tough opponent. However, to build a boat and a team worthy of fighting in the tournament required a lot of money. Since the sport of sailing and yachting is essentially a business for the wealthy, designing and building a ship requires quite a lot of capital, the Australian side found a wealthy investor in successful businessman Alan Bond . Although Alan Bond already had a reputation as a risk-taker and gambler, the Australian yachting party readily accepted support from 1974.
In 1981, the American side had begun to prepare the team members physically and mentally for the upcoming America’s Cup and had also begun to build their ship, named “Liberty”. As the US government has always been proud to have won the championship for so many years, the government arms research center and the Department of Defense provided support for the construction of the defense boat. On the other hand, Alan Bond hired a man named Ben Lexcen to design and build the ship for the Australian competitors. Ben Lexcen was a rather unusual talent who was considered by many to be a genius for his exceptional expertise in his field despite having very little formal education in the subject. Working at the famous Dutch model ship pool at the time, Ben tried to innovate some methods to make his boats faster, and it was for the America’s Cup that he came up with the idea for a fin keel, which was literally designed in the opposite way. to the normal racing yacht keels of the time. The design was finally brought to fruition when the boat was built and named “Australia II”. When John Bertrand and his crew arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, for the competition in 1983, they meticulously hid their winged keel with covered plastic sheets whenever the boat was in port. As the first round of the tournament began between the various countries trying to reach the final, it became apparent that Australia II was far beyond any competition, and hidden pin quickly became the talk of the town. . Ben Lexcen even cheekily handed out hand-drawn diagrams of a fake pin to eject opponents in the wrong direction, and ultimately the Australia II crew won the tournament with a brilliant winning record.
Team USA and Liberty were next in sight for John Bertrand and his men, as they now hoped to end the home side’s streak. What they didn’t expect was that the Americans would try to bring them down any way they could, and that soon became clear. The New York Yacht Club filed a formal complaint about the Australians’ secret keel and claimed it was made by people of different nationalities, not just Ben Lexcen. A committee investigated the whole matter, as Lexcen’s ties to the Netherlands were known to them. Some of the Dutch engineers at the site said the Americans even tried to coerce them into signing a document saying they had built the boat for Lexcen. None of the cheap tricks worked, and the committee reported that they found nothing wrong with Australia II’s boat or the way it was built. The final races came and both teams started their fight with equal determination to win, but the Australians suffered a huge setback. In the first two races of the series, Australia II suffered mechanical failures and Liberty took both wins without a fight. As the American media began to tout a clear victory for their team, Australia II won race three with the biggest margin of victory recorded by a tough team. The fourth race struck a chord again, with Liberty winning and leading the series 3-1. Bob Hawke, Australia’s former prime minister, spoke directly to the competing team during a briefing program, telling them how proud he and his compatriots were of their fight in US waters. This, says John, was perhaps the greatest motivation they could have had at the time.
In the next two races, Australia II beat Liberty to surprisingly bring the tie to a 3-3 draw. It was all about the final race, and many Australians flew to Rhode Island to show their support for the team. The 7th race became the race of the century for sailing sports enthusiasts, as it was intense throughout. Liberty took the lead in the early stages and even left Australia II quite far behind, but USA captain Dennis Conner may have become too confident of their victory. While he ended up making a crucial mistake, the Australian team showed brilliant skills to catch Liberty and then pass him. By the end of the race, Australia II had won the day and the championship as well, becoming the first country other than the United States of America to win the America’s Cup.
End of the race of the century: what was the outcome of the race for both sides?
John Bertrand and his team were hailed as heroes as Australians around the world celebrated their victory. Prime Minister Bob Hawke was also part of the celebrations and also starred in a public interview with the documentary crew shortly before he passed away in 2019. As the shrouds were raised on the winged keel of the boat Australia II, the genius of Ben Lexcen was recognized by everyone around. Lexcen sadly passed away just four years after winning the America’s Cup. At the time, the Australian team was welcomed home with a celebratory parade stretching almost twenty-two kilometers. Surprisingly enough, John Bertrand retired from yacht racing after the victory, and he did not take part in Australia’s defense of the trophy at the next edition of the tournament. Investor Alan Bond became a hugely successful businessman after the win, but eventually pleaded guilty to numerous financial crimes in 1997. All was not so good on the other side, however, as the Losing captain, Dennis Conner, was shunned by the Yacht Club of New York. He found himself in such financial straits that the accomplished man had to work as a carpet salesman for a few years. However, he came out of retirement a few years later and returned to the sport to lead his country in the 1987 America’s Cup, which the United States won again. The documentary film ends with a triumphant reminder of Ben Lexcen’s unique design that literally shaped the future of the sport and shows glimpses of the build-up to the 2021 America’s Cup event, which was the final edition of the esteemed and historic tournament.
“Untold: The Race of the Century” is a 2022 Chapman Way and Maclain Way sports documentary film.