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MIKE DOWNEY

'Hoisting a Few' Does Not Just Mean Raising the Sails

February 02, 1987|MIKE DOWNEY

FREMANTLE, Australia — It could be any crowded bar in any American town on game day. It could be Dallas with Oklahoma there to play some football against Texas. It could be Raleigh, N.C., with Carolina's basketball team in town to take on State. It could be a singles joint in St. Petersburg, Fla., or a corner saloon in Columbus, Ohio, or fern bars from Phoenix to Philly. Doesn't matter.

Places, faces, races--they change, sure. But one thing stays the same. If a hot sporting event is being contested nearby, one for which tickets are expensive and/or impossible to get, it means that a big crowd will be watching it on a TV suspended from the ceiling of a popular local establishment, one that deals in liquid refreshment.

Even if the event happens to be a yacht race.

On South Terrace street in Fremantle, the place to be Sunday was Benito's, the bar at the Newport Brasserie restaurant. How did someone determine that this was the place to be? Easy. He got within half a block of the place, and already could hear the commotion inside.

"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" "Oi! Oi! Oi!"

"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" "Oi! Oi! Oi!"

The kid with "Kookaburra" painted on his arm and zinc cream covering his face sat on the shoulders of a bunch of Australian blokes, leading them in chant and song. It was very early in the afternoon, but, like the America's Cup boat for which they were rooting, these guys already were three sheets to the wind.

Directly across from them, also in the vicinity of the television set, were dozens of loud young Americans, led by a couple of college-age women who were, oh, if not totally gone, then at least 2 1/2 sheets to the wind. And any time the Aussies let up, the Yanks yelled something back.

"Conner! Conner!" they would chant.

"Kooka! Kooka!" would come the reply.

The Americans would start singing "God Bless America." The Australians would break into "Waltzing Matilda."

The face of Stars & Stripes skipper Dennis Conner would suddenly appear on the television. The Americans would cheer, and the Australians would jeer. And interesting ditties would be sung by the home drunks. Conner's health and family heritage fared poorly in most of them.

"Nik-nak-paddy-wak, give your dog a bone," one Aussie sang, laughing. "Send the Yankee bastards home."

In response, a girl produced a large U.S. flag. So, six or seven Aussies started waving flags of their own.

There was patriotism. Jingoism. Enthusiasm.

Over a yacht race. On the TV screen, Stars & Stripes could be seen drawing clear, pulling away to a 2-0 advantage in the pursuit of the Cup. The Americans sang: "Na, na. Hey, hey, hey, Good-by!"

The wobbly Australians attempted to re-establish morale by cheering: "Gimme a K. Gimme an O. Gimme an O." But Kookaburra would prove to be pretty tough to spell under such conditions, so the song would rarely get as far as the second "R."

As the end of the race drew near, the Australian drinking team leader volunteered to "skull" against anybody in the house, skulling being the down under version of chugging. He proceeded to drink a beer, in one gulp, from a glass the approximate size of a fire extinguisher.

George Macary, 22, a nice kid and former Rhode Island college wrestler working temporarily as a bouncer at Benito's, literally rose to the occasion. He got up on the table, in his Cleveland Cavalier T-shirt, to accept the friendly Aussie challenge, and promptly defeated all-comers to the bottom of the glass.

The Australian leader had seen enough. He surrendered his flag to the American.

"These are the nicest people I've ever met," Macary said. "I don't ever want to go home."

But go home he must, because Australian consulates in the United States issue very few open-ended visas.

The question is: Will he ever be back? Will any of these Americans ever be back?

What is to become of Fremantle, if and when the America's Cup title and trophy return to America? More and more now, it appears as though Conner is going to cop the Cup. The next time there is an America's Cup final, then, it will be held off the coast of San Diego, or San Francisco, or Hawaii, or someplace closer to home.

The poor old port of Fremantle, a community of 25,000 or so on the continent's west end, might never again know a time like this. A crush of tourists. A splash of attention. A ringing of cash registers. Gone.

There might never again be such a party here in suburban Perth. Even if Australia should regain the Cup some far-off day, there is no guarantee the winning boat would compete under the Royal Perth Yacht Club's auspices. Possibly the next America's Cup in Australia would be nearer Sydney's shores, and Sydney is close to Fremantle like Newport, R.I., is close to Newport Beach.

Civic officials have done wonders with this place. Fremantle was a hardscrabble little wharf town, full of dark nooks and mysterious crannies, where sailors worked things out with working girls while tight-lipped locals minded their own business.

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