When Fremantle was centre of the world

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Thirty years have passed since the America's Cup defence off the coast of Fremantle. The 'Auld Mug' was lost but the event changed the face of Perth and Fremantle for ever.

How The West Australian's photographers captured all the excitement of the America's Cup defence in Fremantle

On this day, February 4, precisely 30 years ago, the final race in the America’s Cup defence was sailed off Fremantle.

Four years earlier, Australia II, sailing for Royal Perth Yacht Club, had wrested the world’s oldest sporting trophy from the New York Yacht Club, which had held it for 132 years. 

That set it up for the defence of the cup in Gage Roads, between Fremantle and Rottnest Island, in 1987.

It was huge. America’s Cup crews came from all over the world, and lived here for months. The Italian Azzurra team certainly made their presence felt in Fremantle. 

The team of Alan Bond, who had put the money and impetus behind Australia II, spent time training at his Yanchep Sun City development in Two Rocks, and were then based at the old Majestic Hotel, Applecross. There were parties; there was fierce but healthy competition. Fremantle crackled — buildings were restored and I think the America’s Cup defence was very much responsible for transforming Fremantle into what it is today. Australia’s Kookaburra III, (Kevin Parry’s team under skipper Iain Murray), took on the American challenger Stars & Stripes 87, sailed by Dennis Conner, in the finals. 

They were in 12-metre class yachts and on February 4, Conner won the fourth in a best-of-seven final series and was towed victorious back into Fremantle’s Challenger Harbour. I was there among the huge crowds. Yes, the air crackled as 100,000 people partied at the wake in Freo.

Before the America’s Cup, Perth’s biggest claims to fame were that it was “the most remote capital city in the world” and that that it had turned on its lights for the astronaut John Glenn when he orbited the planet in 1962. He could pick out this single prick of light in an ocean of dark. 

But in the four years after the 1983 win, the State Government threw its weight, and considerable finance, behind transforming Fremantle and Perth. Among the new appearances were Observation City at Scarborough and skyscrapers in Perth city. 

Perhaps even more importantly, heritage buildings in Fremantle which had been under threat were now valued and transformed. The port city’s historic waterfront and its West End were revitalised. Challenger Harbour and a bespoke America’s Cup complex were made for the event.

But there were social shifts, too. Suddenly we weren’t forgotten by the world, which appealed to our endemic inferiority complex, though I recall American satirist P.J O’Rourke, who came for the cup defence (officially called the Louis Vuitton Cup), writing that here in remote Western Australia we didn’t even know how to competently make that most “vital piece of sailing-boat equipment, the gin and tonic”. 

One must remember that this wasn’t the Perth and Fremantle we see today. These were basically big towns with bars that had only just progressed from having one beer tap to two — from Swan to “Swan Gold (light beer) or Super”. The hot beef roll out of a hot cabinet on the bar was de rigueur.

Celebrities came, and their boats came too. The biggest boat here was the Aga Khan’s Kalamoun. 

The Aga Khan was a billion-dollar Persian royal who helped fund the Italian Azzura team. The Prince of Monaco was here. Princess Anne came to watch. 

The America’s Cup Ball was held in old Elders wool sheds in Fremantle. It was spectacular. What a night. What glitz for Fremantle, then the home to only 25,000 people.

Thousands of people lined the coastline for the final races. Dennis Conner won back the Auld Mug and was presented the America’s Cup at the Royal Perth Yacht Club. He then went straight back to a New York City ticker-tape parade organised by Donald Trump. Trump even wrote the foreword to Conner’s book The Art of Winning. 

Conner said he had asked Donald Trump for $US3 million and told him he’d name the boat Trump Card. He said Trump gave it a lot of consideration, though it never eventuated.


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