Sitting down with John Bertrand

Published on September 26th, 2022

Shirley Robertson

The fourth Series of Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast starts in emphatic fashion as double Olympic gold medalist Shirley Robertson sits down with the skipper of the America’s Cup’s first ever successful Challenger, Australian John Bertrand.

It was exactly thirty nine years ago that Bertrand, skippering Australia II in Newport, crossed the finish line ahead of Dennis Connor’s Defending Liberty, to end the New York Yacht Club’s 132 year winning streak. For the sport of sailing, it provoked a seismic shift in international competition, for the then 36 year old Bertrand, competing in his fourth Cup, it was totally life changing.

“It was Everest, it was the four minute mile,” shared Bertrand. “No one had ever got through that invisible barrier, the Everest of not only sailing, but of sport. The America’s Cup started before the American Civil War, it’s remarkable…it was the Everest of sport that was there and was the fascination to many many entrepreneurs, including us Australians.”

Robertson and Bertrand begin their chat with talk of destiny as Bertrand discusses how his great grandfather, who was an engineer in Southampton, was involved in the building of two of Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock America’s Cup yachts.

The easy flowing conversation takes in Bertrand’s Olympic campaigning, the pair share the unenviable position of both having finished an Olympic campaign in fourth place, before chat inevitably turns to the America’s Cup campaign of 1983.

John Bertrand

Sailing for the Australian business tycoon Alan Bond, Bertrand lifts the lid on a campaign that ultimately led to the design and build of one of the most controversial yachts to have sailed around an America’s Cup race course.

“Benny (Lexcen) then showed us the wing keeled boat and I thought ‘oh my god, just give us an equal boat and we’ll play the game’,” recalls Bertrand. “But we went sailing the first day over at Fremantle, and it was just unbelievable, the boat could spin on its axis relative to a conventional boat.”

Whether familiar with the sporting details of the 1983 America’s Cup or not, Bertrand’s interview with Robertson is a fascinating and revealing insight into what it took to end the unprecedented one hundred and thirty two year winning streak, told by one of sailing’s great story tellers.

“The full significance (of what we had done) really only became apparent when we got home, and still is…the country stopped…you could not buy a bottle of champagne in Australia the day after the America’s Cup.

“In a survey recently, the most memorable events in modern Australian history – John F Kennedy’s assassination, Armstrong on the moon, and Australia II crossing the finishing line.”

This is a fascinating exchange, as Bertrand discusses all manner of stories, from the pre-race words to the team from backer Alan Bond, to his relationship, post 1983, with defeated Defender Dennis Connor. The events of September 1983 are now sailing folk lore, but to hear them directly from the man in charge of the America’s Cup’s first ever successful Challenger is truly inspiring.

An America’s Cup Hall of Famer, one of the most decorated sailors of all time, Olympic medalist and multiple world champion, Bertrand’s chat with Robertson extends well beyond the 1983 America’s Cup, and is a revealing and engaging insight into the life and mind of one of Australia’s greatest ever sporting icons.

This edition of the podcast is in two parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Shirley Robertson OBE made history by becoming the first British woman to win Olympic Gold Medals at two consecutive Olympic Games. Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast, produced and edited by Tim Butt of Vertigo Films, is available to listen on her website or via most popular podcast outlets, including iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcast, and aCast.

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