That Auld Mug

WE’RE sitting almost exactly where former prime minister Bob Hawke lounged after one of the longest and tensest nights in Australian sporting history, famously warning bosses if they sacked workers for not turning up that day they were a “bum”.

Nearby a display cabinet in Royal Perth Yacht Club’s Wardroom recounts that historic moment on September 26, 1983 when a nation stayed up all night to watch Australia II take the America’s Cup from the New York Yacht Club; the little country making its first steps towards globalisation had achieved what no one else had managed in 132 years.

There’s photographs of skipper John Bertrand and his crew celebrating moments after the win, a miniature replica of Australia II’s legendary winged keel signed by the syndicate’s millionaire bankroller Alan Bond, and pride of place is the “Westpac Spanner” donated by the bank to the Australia II’s team so they could unbolt the Cup from the NYYC’s high security cabinet.

• Archivist John Readhead with one of the many pieces of America’s Cup memorabilia in the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s amazing archives. Photo by Steve Grant

Talking point

“It’s a real talking point,” Royal Perth’s long-term archivist John Readhead says of the spanner.

The cabinet is also packed with historic silver racing cups dating back more than 100 years, but Mr Readhead will be overseeing their temporary relocation as the space is given over to the Cup for a big 40th anniversary celebration on September 26.

“The Australia II crew will be here, plus other dignitaries such as the Lord Mayor and the Governor,” Mr Readhead said, adding that the sailors are making themselves available to discuss their historic win with the 400 members expected to pack the event.

The archivist is in his 56th year as a member of RPYC and recalls the lead-up to the races fondly.

“It was a big thing because the club promoted it; there were newsletters keeping everyone up-to-date with what they were doing all the way along.”

• The official defense poster from 1983 notes in little print that they had to guess about Australia’s II keel, which was the Aussie’s secret weapon (below) but in true larrikan style designer Ben Lexcen helped them out while the cup was making its way Down Under (above).

He says most had cottoned on to the fact the Australia II had a winged keel, but its design was a closely-guarded secret.

So much so that the official poster of the 1983 challenge, which hangs on the archivist’s wall, makes note that its depiction of Australia II’s keel is only as good as they could work out from limited information. Typical of the Aussie cheek after the win, the yacht’s designer Ben Lexcen has fixed it up for them with a black pen, before adding his signature alongside the rest of the team.

“Then it got to the races when we won one, lost one, and it was not looking good,” Mr Readhead said.

“But at the end when it looked like something might happen, the interest was overwhelming.”


Mr Readhead says there’s between 200 and 300 items related to the Cup in RPYC’s archive, including paintings, photographs, press clippings and other bits and pieces, but it’s just a tiny fraction of the 17,000 entries in his database. It’s not surprising given the club was founded back in 1865 as The Perth Yacht Club.

He’s been in the job for 28 years, and his passion for conserving and preserving the club’s history is so infectious that a raft of yacht clubs around Western Australia and over east can thank him for starting up their own archives, including Fremantle, Freshwater Bay, Royal Sydney and Royal Prince Albert.

“By then I had 12 or 14 years of experience, and I used to say to them ‘every day you don’t start is a day you have lost – and that will cost you’,” he said.

Mr Readhead new intimately what they were up for, having been given the role as the club’s first archivist by former Commodore Kel Quinlan.

“When he first showed me the little room which was allegedly known as the archive room, and we first opened the door, there were three big bags of sails, two broken chairs, a couple of cartons of empty beer bottles, five or more cardboard boxes of books and a chipboard shelf – and you know how chipboard crumbles,” he says.

“It took me nearly three years to sort out what was in there.

“I would shuffle things from box to box and put them in order, until it got to the stage there were too many boxes.”

These days the archive is a far cry from those early days; it’s temperature controlled and a shroud of concrete ensures the collection’s safety, although the electronic database has stood the test of time and can let him pull out anything in seconds.

“I realised we had to get a database, so I tackled one of the young sailing members who was at university doing a double degree in IT,” Mr Readhead says of his early attempts to pull everything together.

“He said ‘you write down what you think you need’, which I did, and in a week he had a program, and we changed a few things and he went away and again and came back again in another week and had a database which we’re still using today.”

Mr Readhead said items in the archive stretch from old racing programs to DVDs and USB sticks with the latest news clippings, social events and races.

One of the keys to his success was scoring scholarships to the National Library of Australia and the National Maritime Museum where he studied conservation and preservation, which has helped RPYC’s archive earn an “A” category from the latter and set him up to help other clubs start their own.

“A large part of my job is to communicate with people and help them with their research,” he said, adding that requests can come from over east and overseas, and includes researchers and family members trying to trace a relative’s racing history.

• Bob Hawke in the iconic coat he borrowed from a student for the celebrations at RPYC, telling bosses not to sack workers who were too tired to turn up for their shifts, otherwise they’d be “bums”.


He says the archive is also important for giving new members a feel of the club’s long history, and as part of the job he also puts together short-term exhibitions on various topics; coming up is a look at the life of former Commodore Justice Robert Burnside.

He also scours auction pamphlets to keep an eye on important yachting memorabilia related to the club, but says they face a bit of competition from silversmiths, who tend to jump on a plane to take the silver trophies away to be melted down.

“All that his just gone,” Mr Readhead laments.

The club has also been running an oral history program for the last 10 years, collecting the memories of mainly older members, but also has lots of school groups who come to gather material about the river, racing or that famous Auld Mug, a life-size replica of which greets members as they tack their way up for lunch.


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