As Americans, we love to wrap ourselves up in patriotism when it comes to international sports. We cared most about hockey during the Miracle on Ice. We cared most about cycling when Lance Armstrong repeatedly won the Tour de France. And we probably cared most about sailing when the New York Yacht Club was the most dominant force not only in boating, but in the history of American sports.
The 132-year America’s Cup winning streak was our pride and joy. Something to celebrate, brag about and lord over other countries as the Good Ol’ USA thwarted challenger after challenger. Uncle Sam was undefeated. That’s why the shocking 1983 loss to Australia remains a singular moment that will never be forgotten by those who lived through it.
Netflix provides a crash course on what happened with the latest installment of its Untold documentary series: The Race of the Century (available to stream now). For many, this will be a refresher. For others, this will be a discovery, like a family secret that is rarely discussed. Sailing doesn’t quite have the same popularity as it once held. But for a moment in time, it was huge. And the 1983 upset was both a snapshot of American hubris and Australian ingenuity.
The Race of the Century takes a while to rev up to speed. Roughly the first 14 minutes are spent educating viewers about the America’s Cup—the history, the details, and its importance. The movie’s overall runtime is 1 hour, 23 minutes but you can feel the pace dragging a little at the start.
Stick with the story. You’ll see an engrossing battle of wills between two highly competitive men: Australian skipper John Bertrand and his American counterpart Dennis Conner. Once they start giving their perspectives on the twists and turns of the 1983 race, the documentary becomes a lot more enjoyable.
Both yachtsmen are septuagenarians now. But even almost 40 years later, you can still see raw emotions in their faces. To them, it must seem like the America’s Cup happened yesterday.
More attention is focused on Bertrand and his crew. They are portrayed as the heroes in this narrative—a band of upstarts from a smaller country going against the old money and old guard of the mighty Americans.
When you’re the underdog, you have to be willing to embrace new ideas. As Bertrand said at the beginning of the film: “I’ve never seen a world champion that’s a normal person. You’ve got to be screwed up in some manner to get out of bed and to do extraordinary things. And I’m screwed up.”
The Race of the Century, directed by Untold series producers Chapman and Maclain Way, examines all the ways that Bertrand’s team did things differently. From hiring Ben Lexcen, a then-unknown boat architect who designed the Australia II (seen above in a production still) and its revolutionary winged keel, to Bertrand’s own beliefs in the power of psychological testing and visualization. Remember, this was 1983, so these were not common practices in sports.
One of the most fascinating details of this story is the legend of the winged keel. If you know nothing about boats, all you need to know is that this was a secret weapon designed to make the yacht go faster. The winged keel took on almost mythological status because the Australians kept it hidden from view until after the race was over.
From the American point of view, it was fascinating to see the lengths Conner went to delegitimize the Australian yacht. Conner speaks candidly in The Race of the Century about doing everything possible to gain any advantage. He also makes a point about the amount of pressure he was under from The New York Yacht Club to keep America’s win streak intact.
Pressure can affect a man in many ways. Perhaps that played a role in the tactical error he made down the stretch as the Americans blew a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven races. Bertrand and Conner sailed into history. Their lives were altered in ways the viewers of this documentary might find surprising.
A lot has changed. Australia hasn’t won since, and America is no longer the lone yachting superpower. New Zealand has captured four titles since 1995, including the past two.
The next America’s Cup is in 2024 in Barcelona, Spain. Who knows what will happen. The Race of the Century reminds us of why we love sports. Now and then, you’ll witness something extraordinary.
All Vol. 2 episodes of Untold, including The Race of the Century, are available to stream now on Netflix.
[Top production still image courtesy of Netflix]