By M. Catherine Callahan / Newport Daily News staff
Twenty years ago today, the New York Yacht Club relinquished the America's Cup, the historic and prestigious yacht racing trophy it had proudly held since 1857. Men in blue blazers and women in sundresses attended the ceremony, which marked the Cup's first appearance in Newport.
Although the America's Cup competition was moved to the city in 1930, it took an Australian upset to wrest the trophy from its shrine in the New York Yacht Club's Manhattan headquarters. The Cup briefly was displayed in Newport during the private ceremony at the Marble House, then it was whisked to a local bank vault, where it was held overnight before the start of the long journey to its new home Down Under.
William H. Foulk Jr. was a committee chairman for the New York Yacht Club and among the members who gathered for the transfer of the Cup on Sept. 27, 1983, at 11 a.m. Foulk and William H. Dyer Jones had received the Cup during a clandestine meeting on Goat Island about 1:30 that morning, and had brought it to the carriage house they had rented that America's Cup summer.
"When the Cup arrived in Newport it was a sticky mess," Foulk said from New York during a telephone interview earlier this summer. "It sort of smelled."
It seems the valuable trophy had been showered with champagne before it was carried from its display case on New York's 44th Street. New York Yacht Club members present at the posh clubhouse on Sept. 26, 1983, when Australia II beat Liberty in the seventh and final match race of the competition, decided to drown their disappointment by downing champagne directly from the Auld Mug. Foulk said members bought bottles of bubbly at the bar and poured the champagne into the silver-plated trophy. Only as the sticky amber liquid drained from the Cup did they become aware of the hole drilled in its base, Foulk said.
The hole accommodated the steel rod that had secured the Cup to its display pedestal for generations. Its silver base had been taken to Tiffany's to be engraved before the prize was presented in Newport to the victorious and elated Australian syndicate, Foulk said.
The spectator and media crowd forming outside the New York Yacht Club swelled as members packed the Cup and a green leather pouch into a black box and prepared it for the historic journey to Newport. About 8 p.m., the Cup was loaded into a Brinks armored truck. Peter H. Wawra, the yacht club's manager, and Sohei Hohri, its librarian, followed in a private car, Foulk said.
He and Jones sent their wives out to have dinner while they stopped off at a press conference at the Armory on Thames Street, and then visited Dennis Conner and his defeated crew at the team headquarters, the former CareyMansion on Ruggles Avenue.
"Things were pretty glum," Foulk remembered.
Conner and his Liberty crew bore the distinction of becoming the first American team to lose the America's Cup. The longest winning streak in sporting history -- and 132 years of tradition - had been shattered earlier that day when Australia II beat Liberty by 41 seconds.
Until that moment, there had been no test of the legend that any skipper who lost the America's Cup must offer his head as a substitute for the trophy. Among the hand-lettered signs held aloft ashore amid the frenzied Aussie celebrants that evening was one that read: "We know whose face will take the place in that showcase."
After paying their respects at the wake at CareyMansion, Foulk and Jones drove to Goat Island to meet with other members aboard Black Knight, the New York Yacht Club's Race Committee boat.
"The reason we went back there was to meet the Cup," Foulk said. "Finally, at a little after 12, I was getting worried."
Wawra and Hohri, the yacht club's manager and its librarian, drove up about 12:30 a.m. They had the steel bolt, but no Cup to secure. In the traffic and in the confusion, they had become separated from the Brinks truck they were following.
"They were very upset because they lost the truck," Foulk said. "Apparently, right when they were leaving New York, the truck disappeared."
Foulk called Newport police and requested that officers be posted on the NewportBridge to direct the truck when it appeared. About 1:30 a.m., the Cup arrived with a Newport police escort. Foulk and Jones learned that security concerns had led Brinks management to switch trucks at a warehouse in New Haven, Conn.
"John Fisher (a company vice president) told me that right from the beginning, Brinks was afraid that the Cup was going to be stolen," Foulk said. "They were scared to death that it was going to be taken."
It was after 2 a.m. when Foulk backed up his wife's maroon Pontiac station wagon to the armored truck and the Cup was transferred. Police escorted the car to the carriage house on Chastellux Avenue, where it spent the rest of the night on a coffee table in the living room. A Newport police officer and a dog guarded the trophy, Foulk said.
After sunrise, the sticky and smelly America's Cup trophy was taken to the Marble House, where staff from the Preservation Society of Newport County cleaned and polished it, Foulk said. It had been restored to its original luster by the time it was presented to Peter R. Dalziell, commodore of the history-making Royal Perth Yacht Club, late that morning.
Tears of joy and disappointment were shed that morning as an era ended. But a new one was beginning, and the Aussies wanted to keep their treasured trophy safe. The America's Cup spent the night in a vault at the former Rhode Island Hospital Trust Bank, which was located at Thames and Green streets. Newport City Councilman Richard E. O'Neill was the bank's assistant manager at that time.
He was on vacation and had been among the crowd of spectators waiting along the waterfront for Australia II and Liberty to return to their docks after the final race on what became known to many as Black Monday. He got a call the next day that the Aussies were keeping the Cup at the bank until they shipped out, so he arrived early that Wednesday morning with his camera.
O'Neill said he asked the Australian representative who arrived to claim the Cup before business hours if it would be possible to remove it from the box it was packaged in. O'Neill explained that the America's Cup competition was a piece of Newport history, yet few residents ever had an opportunity to see the distinguished prize.
The Cup was unpacked and placed in O'Neill's hands while another employee snapped a quick photograph. "I thought it would be bigger, heavier," O'Neill said. "It was definitely lighter than I had expected."
The Australian rep was anxious to get the Cup back in its box and to take it on its way, O'Neill said. "But he said, 'I'm glad that you made that suggestion, because I didn't like the way it was packed.'"
O'Neill said he never will forget his brief but close encounter with yacht racing's most prestigious prize.
"I guess I have the distinction of being the last person in Newport to hold the Cup before it, unfortunately, left Newport," he said. "Once it left Newport it took on a whole different venue."
It arrived, sticky and stinking of champagne, in an armored truck in the middle of the night.
Hours later, polished and sparkling in the sunshine, it was presented to the commodore of the Royal Perth Yacht Club during a bittersweet ceremony at the Marble House.