John Bertrand has been one of our finest sportsmen and sporting administrators. He represented his country in three Olympic Games and four America’s Cups, and is currently chairman of Sport Australia’s Hall of Fame and whipping Swimming Australia into shape as the beleaguered body’s new president.
But the feat for which the now-66-year-old will always be known best is skippering Australia II to win the America’s Cup in 1983, beating Liberty captained by Dennis Conner, the first time the Auld Mug had been wrested from the US in 132 years. The feat was hailed by the Australian Sporting Hall of Fame as the finest team performance in 200 years of Australian sport. Alan Bond provided the money, Ben Lexcen the winged keel and Bertrand the sailing savvy.
“I only developed into a good skipper when I became mature enough to sit back and develop the poise and confidence to make the right decisions at the right time,” and that famous day, September 26, 1983, when Australia won the Cup, Bertrand made all the right moves.
“It was three races each when we went into the deciding race… Australia II was behind by 57 seconds at the end of the fourth leg, with two legs to go. ‘Hang in there, hang in there!’ I remember shouting. ‘Sail that boat!’ Heading downwind we were sailing in the ‘groove’… a helmsman’s paradise where everyone walks a tightrope of pure efficiency. We were now performing – for real and when it really mattered – the functions we had imagined ourselves performing through all those months of preparation. We sailed outside Victory, picked up two wind shifts… then we passed them.
“As we went into the last leg we were 21 seconds ahead. I believe the Americans panicked when they realised we were capable of beating them. In contrast, when we jibed we got it exactly right. The excitement and tension was unbelievable as Dennis threw everything at us. He jibed 47 times in that last leg. With just a few hundred metres to go we were about 40 seconds ahead and the Cup was there for the taking but I was fully expecting some disaster to ruin it for us. It would not have surprised me if the mast had collapsed. But then we were home.
“After four and a half hours at the helm I just let go of the wheel and sat down on the deck. All I felt was relief at the lifting of the great responsibility I had carried for so long. I wept my heart out.”
An earlier version of this story was published naming the defending American boat as ‘Victory’ instead of ‘Liberty’, and noting the date of Australia II’s win as September 25, 1983, not September 26.
No. 2: John Bertrand
No. 3: Harry Hopman
No. 4: Ian Chappell
No. 5: John Eales
No. 6: Norm Provan
No. 7: Syd Coventry
No. 8: Anne Sargeant
No. 9: Darren Lockyer
No. 10: Johnny Warren
No. 11: Lauren Jackson
No. 12: Michael Voss