Cup legend – 40 years on…

John Longley next to the history winning Australia II yacht which is on permanent display at the WA Maritime Museum

John Longley, 78, catches the wind on the Swan River, 40 years after helping to mastermind Australia’s sensational America’s Cup win.

“I still sail, swim and row – I like the water,” said John who sniffed sea breezes and the sailing life as a schoolboy, 65 years ago. 

For a full life, John offered this: “Simply find some sort of physical activity you like and keep doing it as long as you can.

“It is also important to engage with groups who share a common interest – physical or mental. I guess we all know that…just need to do it.”

Wind in their sails: Skipper John Longley and Socks on the Swan River

On the famous cup win’s 40th anniversary, John told Have a Go News: “I am amazed and humbled by the continuing interest, even from people who were not born at the time.”

Were the crew truly confident of beating the Americans?

“Yes, because we came back from one – three down and two of our losses were from breakages. We felt we had an edge in several areas but of course we were fighting history and a very smart crew of sailors on Liberty.

“What we did not know was that the Americans had one last roll of the dice.They lightened their boat by taking out all their internal ballast and spare sails and added sail area to the one genoa they took to sea. 

“As a result, they were faster than us in the light conditions of race seven. If they had sailed a more conservative race I think they would have beaten us.”

John Longley, AM, is a veteran of five America’s Cup campaigns. He was key to Australia II’s design, strategies and, with skipper John Bertrand, selecting the winning crew.

John is also remembered for bringing the Endeavour replica to fruition after five years. He circumnavigated the world on her over six years through 149 ports.

John said the America’s Cup win was a unifying moment for Australia.

“We were in a recession, interest rates were 12.5 per cent, inflation was booming and we were in the middle of a Cold War. All-in-all things were pretty grim. To have such a good news story really lifted the whole country, even those who had never set foot on a sailing boat.

“For WA it had people all over the world reaching for their atlases (remember them) trying to find out where Perth and Fremantle were. It bought $450 million investment into Fremantle.

“For me the freedom to live my life with the relief that we had not lost. Also, it led to the Endeavour project that was the other great professional joy of my life.”

John said the whole team remains close. 

The crew of Australia II

“We went through a lot. We have got together as a team for a reunion every 10 years and, individually, often in between. All of us look after ourselves pretty well and keep as fit as we can,” he said.

Are there any untold Cup secrets?

“Maybe just different emphasis on some of the things we did that made such a difference. It was easy for people to grasp that Australia II had a very radical keel and put our success down to that. But the keel was only one area that we excelled.

“Our sails, designed by Tom Schnackenberg, were superb. Our mast and rigging, instrumentation, hull form, deck layout and so on were first class and if I may say so, so was our crew. 

“We had a wonderful blend of experienced campaigners and younger very smart sailors. We were there for only one reason – to win.”

John remains interested in America’s Cup challenges “but I prefer the more traditional boats where the difference in speed is so minute.

“The ferocious pre-start, the tacking duels, the chaos of the leeward mark, the crew being sailors not just athletes and the closer interaction of the boat with the subtlety of the wind changes is what interests me. 

“That doesn’t mean I am not amazed by the technology of the new boats and the extraordinary speed they can produce. It’s a bit like cricket. You can enjoy T20 and Test Match cricket at the same time. It’s just that I prefer Test cricket.”

John continues to build State and national interest in St Ayles skiffs, attracting seniors into their 80s who like gentle river rowing.

“I would like to finish the book I started in 1995 but rarely get around to as the sun keeps shining and the Fremantle Doctor keeps blowing,” said the celebrated sailor.