by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

FREMANTLE, Australia — Now the waves can come and swallow this town again. For a few glorious days it was hanging ten on the world, the yachts were racing, the cameras whirring, but now that’s over and the crowds are thin and you can get a table easily in the good steak houses, even the ones near the water.

Sail la vie, Australia. It’s America’s Cup again. Did you even watch this crazy thing on cable TV after midnight? Four boat races — all for a silver trophy most of us never even heard of until it was lost? Did you watch? Doesn’t matter. Dennis Conner and his Stars & Stripes crew and the San Diego Yacht Club big shots are flying home the Cup even as this is being written, en route to a ticker-tape parade through the streets of, naturally, New York City, where, as we all know, yachting is a very popular sport.

And here in Fremantle they’re watching the nest egg float out to sea. Having the America’s Cup was a transfusion of life to this place; millions of dollars poured in, the stores and the hotels got a face-lift, it became a stop on the map — and as Ft. Lauderdale or Atlantic City or Cape Cod can tell you, being a stop on the map can keep you alive.

Gone now. And if anyone had good reason to be surly and bitter and downright depressed about Stars & Stripes’ 4-0 sweep over Kookaburra III, it would be the Australians here who just got boxed out of a future. But on Wednesday night, after that final victory, the celebration for the conquering visitors was wild and loud and honest. The Aussies were singing and cheering and hailing the Americans deep into the harbor night, when the winds grew cold and their voices carried around the corners and bounced off the street lamps.

We are leaving now, the press corps, and in our memory suitcases some of us are packing a great and historical American victory. But I am taking home the way in which the Australians lost. I hope I never forget it.

Remember that this was a wipeout, total humiliation, the Australian boat never leading at a single leg mark of the four races. When Conner lost the Cup in 1983, four races to three, he mumbled through a post-race remark, near tears, then departed the press conference without taking questions. This time, naturally, he stayed for the whole thing. So did Iain Murray, the Kookaburra III leader who said he will not skipper a boat again, and therefore will almost certainly remain known for the rest of his life as “the man who lost the Cup.”

Murray was quiet but gracious. And then, just as Conner was asked how it felt to win, something terribly fitting occurred. Murray’s dog, Cliff, somehow found his way to the stage — how he got in is the kind of thing they don’t bother to explain here — and once he found his owner, poked his head over his shoulder and licked him affectionately in front of the whole media- stuffed room. And Murray, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, simply petted him back, even as Conner was wondering aloud why everyone was suddenly laughing. “Upstaged by a dog!” Conner finally exclaimed. Not the dog, Dennis. The compassion.

This thing was war to Conner and a sporting event to the Aussies, and maybe that’s why they lost it. They didn’t cover every angle, every possible substance for the boat bottom, every type of sail and keel design and wind pattern. They won in 1983 by catching the Americans with their technology down, introducing the winged keel, but that won’t happen again. Who knows whether Australia or anyone will ever take the Cup away from the United States

now that it is a race of better mousetraps?

The fact is, until Conner lost it in 1983, almost no one in the United States besides boating enthusiasts knew what the America’s Cup was. “Losing in 1983,” an insider told me, “was the best thing that could have happened to American yacht racing.” Sure. Conner led a $15 million cavalry-like charge to get the thing back — “Steal our Cup, will ya?” — and corporate sponsors, who always act like dumb horses to a bugle, have now jumped on the bandwagon for the next one. Polaroid. Sprint. Pepsi. Budweiser. More sponsorship money hooked up with American yachting these past two weeks than it has probably seen in 10 years. Bing, bang, boom. It smells like Big Time now. I guarantee you the next America’s Cup will be like covering the Super Bowl.

None of which helps the Australians. They held the Cup for just three years, after it sat 132 straight years in the United States. Ah, but what a celebrated three years! Here there is no Super Bowl, no World Series, no 50 other sports and 85 cable channels to detract the attention. Winning the America’s Cup was something not forgotten in the next week’s newspapers. It may have been like Leon Spinks’ heavyweight title — enjoy it while you can
— but it made national heroes of Alan Bond, the financier behind Australia II, and John Bertrand, the skipper. The Cup itself was constantly visited in the trophy room of the Royal Perth Yacht Club.

Yet when the designated parties turned it over Friday on the docks of the Swan River — with both crews and 5,000 guests present — they could only repeat how thoroughly Conner had earned it, and how they were sure it was going back to worthy hands. The roar from the crowd for Conner was impressive, as was the compliment from Prime Minister Robert Hawke on how “graciously” Conner had accepted his defeat in 1983.

Nice words. Flimsy facts. Conner never even showed up for the Cup presentation ceremony that year, nor for a later White House reception for both crews. He showed for Friday’s bash, however, without any socks and in a wrinkled suit that looked as if he’d just pulled it from below deck. No one wants to hear this. Tough. The man is a single-minded sailor, a master organizer and a hollow person. Never was that more clear than when he fumbled through his speech Friday in what should have been a shining moment.

By comparison, the Australians were embarrassingly sporting. The press hailed Conner’s triumphant comeback — even though he himself barely addressed it — and the people in Fremantle clamored around the bus that carried his crew, just hoping for a chance to say, “Well done.”

So dominating was Stars & Stripes that one of the Kookaburra crew compared going out for Race 4 to the soldiers at Gallipoli marching senselessly into the enemy fire. Yet, less than two hours after that race, three of the Kookaburra guys were at the Stars & Stripes dock, congratulating their peers, toasting them with beer. “Hey, these are our mates,” said Kookaburra grinder Rick Goodrich. That was first. That was enough.

Sail la vie. What can they do? Fremantle, which was struggling before the Cup came down under, may become a white elephant now. The shops and the restaurants may be in trouble. There’s no red letter date, no month on the calendar to circle, no government aid to expect. The silver history is gone from the Royal Perth Yacht Club trophy case, on its way now to San Diego. And . . . ? And not a sour word heard. What’s done is done, what’s won is won.

There was a billboard we noticed when we first drove into town before the races. It hung on the railway station fence. “Keep Dreaming, Dennis,” it read in big letters.

The day after the victory, we passed the station again. The sign was still there, but the makers had changed it. Across the corner, in the same professional lettering of “Keep Dreaming, Dennis” they had added, “Dreams Really Do Come True.” No spray paint. No foul words. Just a verbal slap on the back; nice job, good days, no worries.

Dreams do come true; what they don’t do is last. We are leaving, flying away, and Fremantle is already blowing south in the memory. There was victory here, yes, but something even rarer. Sportsmanship. Good and true. Too bad there’s no trophy case for that. Australia says it was honored to have the America’s Cup even for three years. It should be the other way around.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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