SKULLDUGGERY AT NEWPORT, R.I.
To mark the 30th anniversary of their epic America's Cup victory over the US defender Liberty, David Salter interviewed Australia II's tactician Hugh Treharne at the Club after the May general meeting. Rare footage of the seven challenge races was also shown. Hugh provided the packed audience of members with fascinating insights into the historic 1983 campaign. Here are some extracts:
DAVID SALTER: Thanks for your time, Hugh. First up, what exactly does the tactician do?
HUGH TREHARNE: Well, it's like chess. You've got to figure out all the moves and to put yourself in the right place at the right time. And that entails being able to accurately predict the wind. I was blessed with particularly good eyesight. I could see wind and wind shifts, and I could see rounding marks a long way before anyone else. Just subtle little changes in the feel and weather I could sense. And I suppose I got reasonably good at it. The trick is, we had to figure out which side of the course was preferable in terms of wind speed. And generally speaking we always tried to start on the side of the opposition where we thought there was more wind. You don't need very much more wind than the opposition to beat him. If you separate 100 yards you can easily get 0.1, 0.2, 0.3 of a knot more or less than the opposition. You've just got to get it right and go where the wind is. SKULLDUGGERY
DS: The tactician is also feeding direct input to the helmsman about, literally, what to do. When to tack, which way to go. The question that arises for me is: who has the final say? You or the helmsman?
HT: Oh, well, the helmsman overrides everything if he wants to. But generally he [John Bertrand] didn't. Particularly, if Grant Simmer and I would make a recommendation to him, he'd take it. And it was very rare that he didn't feel that it was right, and then we had to just wear it.
DS: But every now and then he would?
HT: Oh, yeah. It was just that he knew best. When you feel a boat on the wheel, you really know.
DS: During the first race there was a disaster for Australia II. One of the pulleys in the steering gear mechanism pulled out of its bracket inside the boat. Bertrand was steering on trim tab alone.
HT: Yeah, I jumped down the aft hatch and got a bit of line and a snatch block and tied it up. And then I got a screwdriver and I wound it up like a windlass, a Spanish windlass, to tighten it up and it came good. It was good enough, anyway. But we lost a lot - we lost the race, really. We were actually dribbling past him on the run when the steering gear failed and had it stayed together we would have beaten him around the mark. We knew that we just had to stop this sort of stuff happening.
DS: Can we talk about starts for a moment? The interesting thing is that in this series there was only one race in which the boat that won the start was never headed and went on to win. In all the other races the lead changed up the first leg. HT: The boats were very evenly matched and Conner is a very skilled sailor, obviously, and John was quite a bit nervous, I guess. In the earlier races he was much more confident and he was brilliant. But racing against this bloke it was harder, and it showed. John was just not getting his starts. He'd lost confidence with it - bad time to lose confidence! He had his time and distance judgment screwed up. Generally, in the practice races and early races he was pretty good, but he was just nervous on the occasion - the importance of the occasion, I guess. He wasn't as calm as the other bloke. You just had to try and calm him down.
DS: I'm told that after losing one start he absolutely did his block and threw the wheel away. Is that right?
HT: I steered only a little bit.
DS: So are the starts really that important?
HT: Well, it's a lot more fun winning the finish than the start.
DS: It was your direct responsibility, as tactician, and particularly in the light stuff, to really know which side to go - to know where the breeze was going to be. You had a trick. Tell us about it.
HT: Well, up until 15 minutes before the start, you could have 'outside assistance'. And we'd simply go out early and have two rubber ducks with some very skilled people aboard - two blokes in each boat. They went out on each tack - port tack and starboard tack - to the layline, where you meet at the top of the course. We had those blokes go out to that point, then come 25% of the way in and just sit there for two hours. And they used to log the wind speed and the wind direction and report it to me. I used to, on a daily basis, code it so no-one else knew what they were talking about.
DS: You had to code it because everyone could hear on VHF?
HT: Yeah, they could hear. There was nothing private in any of these radios. So I'd tell them to either increase or decrease the wind speed, so the direction and the wind speed were wrong. You see, these boats can do 6 knots in 6 knots of wind and if you just get one tenth of a knot more boat speed, you only need one tenth of a knot of wind to get it. It's significant, so you just go where the wind is and you've got to figure out how to get there. That's my job. To be able to put the boat on the course, relative to the other boat, where the most wind is. I didn't get it right all the time, but I got it right more than the other bloke.
DS: You were also deeply involved in the sail program. I know that early on in the campaign, Jim Hardy went to Alan Bond and Warren Jones and said that he didn't think the spinnakers were stable enough in light breezes and that you should have a chance to supervise their cut, and the build of some sails. Tell us about your role in spinnakers.
HT: Well, that's true I guess. Hardy went in to bat and sort of said we need to do something about it, and I had the opportunity to take over without any hindrance. I could do what I liked, basically, on the re-cuts. And slowly but surely I just got them better, particularly downwind in the light winds. All spinnakers look nice and firm when the wind's on the side when you're reaching - they sit perfectly. But when you try to sail as deep as you can to get down as fast as you can you're right on the verge of the spinnaker being 'jiggly'. You know, it's just hanging there. If you go any lower the clew will drop and the sheet will droop down toward the water. You've got to hold it up so the clew's just up and you've got to really round the sails on the edges. And that's what I did. They got better. Tom Schnackenberg was fantastic on the fore and aft sails, but he didn't seem to have a real good grip on spinnakers. Between the two of us we just sorted it out, and got 'em good.
DS: After the fourth race you were down 1-3. That must have seemed like the bottom of the pit. Was there a change in tactical approach from that point?
HT: Not really. Bondy was running around like a chook with his head cut off trying to figure out whether he should sack anyone or whatever. I'd been through that in 1974 [on Southern Cross]. I was the tactician and I was 'excused'. He was looking for excuses. He was looking for ways of changing personnel but Bertrand wouldn't let him. Bertrand just said 'absolutely no'. He sorted it out with Bondy. I didn't even know the discussion was going on. We knew we were fast if we did it right. We just had to try a lot harder.
DS: Can you unravel the mystery of Conner's multiple ratings for us?
HT: Liberty had something going on that none of the other 12 metres did. The fact is they did a deal with the measuring people so that they could adjust the sail sizes on the boat and adjust the freeboard of the boat from day to day. They had three different valid rating certificates. If you want to get more sail you have to have less stability and shorter waterline length. To do that you've got to take lead out. Because the boat floats higher, the waterline's shorter. But it tips over more, so if you get caught with big sails and the wind comes up you're not very fast. And if you put the little sails up and long waterline and the wind doesn't come up, you're slow. So he could, in fact, change his rating. We didn't think that was possible. We didn't think that was allowed. Nobody else did except Conner. He kept it a good secret.
DS: But didn't the Americans also have other ways of tweaking their rating?
HT: I noticed that when the Liberty was being prepared for sea they would bring lots and lots of sails into their tender and their various chase boats. I thought, 'Gee, they've got lots of sails. I can't imagine how they could possibly need them.' A lot of them were bricked up tight, and I saw white sails. I thought, 'Nobody's got white jibs anymore. They went out years ago.' They were Dacron sails bricked up into little tight parcels. I saw them putting them on the yacht and I thought, 'Hang on. If you're putting your racing sails on, how can you have these as well?' So in the sixth race I decided I'd catch them out. I spoke to Benny and Warren Jones before they left the dock and said 'At 18 minutes to the start I'm going to get you on the two-way radio and I'm going to ask you to make sure you get both boats are measured straight after the race. And as soon as I got on the radio and said that, a great big chase boat came flying in to Liberty and sails came out of it like you wouldn't believe. They had the boat in light air trim with extra weight in it. I reckon that it would have floated low. Anyway, when they took all the sails out - just before the start - the wind came up and they were slow. We beat them by three minutes, or something like that - it was a long way, anyway. It was a good wind, and they were from here to Bradley's Head behind.
DS: There was something else you noticed when you were on the reaching legs.
HT: Yeah, well, there's another way to do it. In the bilge of those boats the lead is so far down they had plates fore and aft with bulkheads in them. I think they were putting water in there, but I'm not sure. When we were in the earlier races with the spinnaker up they were always pumping water out. I know, because I was looking at it when we were behind them. Unless that thing's leaking they were taking water in - then pumping it out.
DS: In the final, deciding race, Australia II took an early lead, but then fell behind. At the gybe mark Liberty's lead went out to 45 seconds, at which point a lot of people in Australia went to bed. Take us through that last, dramatic spinnaker leg.
HT: Well, we were able to sail the boat as deep as we could, and make him do the same. When he had to try and match us, he couldn't. That's all. Before that, he was 52 seconds ahead. Looking upwind to the left I could see some wind between the spectator boats as we got further away from the weather mark. You could see that there was good wind toward the back of the fleet so we just kept going toward it. And that's how we closed the gap. But then, when they were very close together, we just dribbled past them. Not by much - I think it was only by 20 seconds at the bottom mark. I steered a bit in that race, on the final leg, but it wasn't because Bertrand was upset. It was a tacking duel that he couldn't see and I was facing back. I just grabbed it, steering backwards, and he let it go.
One thing that was interesting I found out later. They had that Good Year blimp up in the sky. And they had that famous sail maker bloke, Lowell North, up in the blimp and he was on the television. He was doing a commentary, you know, watching the race and talking about it - talking about the wind shifts. And it wasn't until months later that I found out that they had a TV on their boat [Liberty], a 12-volt TV set. DS: So he was calling the shifts for them? HT: Yeah, but he screwed up, because the wind that I found was out on the left hand side. We went for it, and got it. But Lowell North told him [Conner] there was better wind in the middle, and there wasn't. Serves him right. I just had to find something. It was the most important thing just to get more wind and go where the wind was. Luckily we did.