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David Nelson / Society

Thrill of Following Stars & Stripes

November 13, 1986|DAVID NELSON

PERTH, AUSTRALIA — The Fremantle Doctor filled out a winning prescription for Dennis Conner and his Stars & Stripes in Sunday's spirited sail against French Kiss, one of the two French America's Cup entrants.

The Fremantle Doctor is the local name for the fierce winds that roar in from the Indian Ocean to cool this hot land in summer. Because these winds also sweep away the bothersome black flies that Perth residents claim were bred by the devil himself, they are "just what the doctor ordered."

The stiff, nearly gale-force winds that blew Stars & Stripes through the whitecaps to victory also provided quite a joy ride for the 40 or so Yanks, all San Diegans, following the action from Carmac VI, the luxurious motor yacht used as a VIP spectator boat by the Sail America Foundation. The group, which included San Diego Yacht Club Vice Commodore Fred Frye and his wife, Joy; San Diego Chamber of Commerce senior vice president Max Schetter, and Conner's wife, Judy, is in the vanguard of the invasion force of several thousand Yanks expected to land on these shores as the America's Cup contest heats up.

Sunday's race nearly fell victim to a water-borne demonstration organized by the local fishing fleet, which attempted to close Fremantle Harbor as a protest against a recent government edict that slashed the annual lobster catch by 10%. The fishing boats circled the anchorage in tight ranks, forcing the racing yachts and their tenders to remain docked.

Patriotism finally carried the day, however, when Australia II raised its sails and set out to sea; as one of Perth's own entries, the fishing fleet had no choice but to make way for the majestic craft and its fluttering green battle flags. The Stars & Stripes followed, with its tender, the Betsy, which broadcast Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyrie" as a warning to the other racing yachts sailing in Conner's wake.

Labor disputes are hardly a novelty in these parts. A strike by nurses has crippled hospitals in some Australian cities, and was narrowly avoided here. In a labor dispute viewed with much greater alarm in Perth, the local Swan brewery was closed for a few days last week, thus cutting off supplies of Western Australia's favorite beverage. Brewery owner Alan Bond, the man who brought the America's Cup to Perth and the sponsor of the syndicates backing Australia II, III and IV, settled the strike before the situation reached crisis proportions. Beer is important here.

The racing yachts, with their graceful curves and silhouettes, make a grand sight as they slip over the loden-green waters of the Indian Ocean. Fremantle has been glamorized by their presence, but the everyday, bread-and-butter work of this port hardly has been swept away by this multimillion-dollar flotilla. As the boats proceed to sea, they pass within sight--and smell--of the towering, ungainly "sheep ships" that carry their loudly baaing cargoes off to the Moslem provinces of India.

The cup that launched a thousand ships is carefully locked away in the unprepossessing club house of the Royal Perth Yacht Club. Visiting Yanks have had difficulty gaining a glimpse of this trophy, but a group of San Diegans headed by retired Rear Adm. Herb Stoecklein was invited to the club the other evening for a dinner of lamb in apricot sauce and a brief look--through double-locked glass doors--at the America's Cup.

A masterwork of 19th-Century craftsmanship, the solid silver cup still looks somewhat unwieldy, and rather like an elaborate ewer. An uninformed viewer would never guess that the chance of even temporary ownership of this gaudy trophy could inspire such tremendous outlays of money and effort.

It has, or course, and those in current possession of the Cup are so enamored of it that Arlene Bond, wife of Alan Bond, recently presented her husband with an exact replica. Crafted in London by the Royal Silversmiths for $45,000, this trophy is Bond's hedge against the day when Conner or the currently leading Kiwis will carry away the genuine article.

Conner, by the way, is quite the celebrity in these parts. His name is heard on street corners and in pubs, and his face appears everywhere on posters advertising a local lottery.

Perth has geared itself to greet the thousands of visitors who are expected during the course of the challenge. Posters around the city urge residents to offer all visitors a "G'Day from W.A." (Western Australia), a suggestion that hardly seems necessary. These Aussies are a friendly lot.

In fact, the only sign seen thus far of any possible local hostility was graffiti splashed across a wall near the Fremantle train station. It read, "Give the Cup back to the Yanks now," a bit of advice that the locals seem unlikely to follow.

His Worship Mick Michaels, Lord Mayor of Perth, hosted a reception at Council House (City Hall) for Stoecklein, Schetter and other visiting Yanks. It was attended by most of the city Councilors and proceeded in typical Aussie fashion with plenty of food and drink.

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