The Fleeting Glory of KA-11

Newcastle loves boats.

The harbour, foreshores, breakwaters, and beaches make boat-watching an easy and inviting pleasure.
When a special maritime visitor draws crowds of Novocastrians from their daily rounds, well, the occasions are quite spectacular.

Kookaburra 1 (KA-11) arrives off Newcastle midday Saturday, 29 June 1985

Mid-winter Hunter days are often pleasant, bright and clear.

Saturday, 29th June 1985, was one such, lighting up Kookaburra 1’s beautiful golden hull against the deep blue waters as she coaxed her flotilla of admirers past our iconic sentinel into a harbour lined with thousands of us - soaking up the spectacle (and the sun), as we do, with the least encouragement.

You might remember the America’s Cup

Thirty-five years ago the America’s Cup was a source of national pride, in which we basked while awaiting the Yanks’ return to Perth to try and get their precious “Auld Mug” back.

Three years earlier we (all of us, we felt, not just that west Australian millionaire) had pried that ridiculous cup from their 132-year clasp in a humiliating (as we always describe it) defeat. And in two years time we would either trounce them again, or, being the world’s best sports, maybe let them have it back in a spirit of friendly rivalry.

It was, 1985, peak America’s Cup fever in Downunderland.

Nearly four decades later, Throsby recalls only a few names from this fading moment of national fervour.

Kookaburra 1 and flotilla of locals prepare for harbour entry.

Alan Bond, of course, the millionaire whose yacht Australia II did so thoroughly rend the pride of the New York Yacht Club in 1983, off Newport, Rhode Island.

So famous that it should be a person was the secret winged keel of the triumphant Aussie-designed 12 metre boat. Rightfully, fame flowed to the designer, Ben Lexcen, whose name was enshrined in a 1988 Toyota.

John Bertrand, the boat’s skipper, and Dennis Conner, the vanquished defender, aren’t easily forgotten.
And Prime Minister Bob Hawke, with his famous live television admonition to bosses that any of them who sacked a worker for not turning up after this night of excitement “is a bum.”

Not as well recalled – and, but for losing all four defending races of the 1987 America’s Cup off Fremantle, Western Australia, they would be household names still today - are Kevin Parry, who financed Taskforce ’87 to the tune of $20 million or more, and skipper of his yacht, Kookaburra III, Iain Murray.

Parry: the name, will be tickling your neurons just about now. You know it because he owned - to various degrees, amid boardroom wars and corporate contortions - Newcastle’s NBN Television for most of the 1980’s.

Kookaburra 1 and flotilla - procession heads for Nobbys

Which brings us to the (human) star of the show: Iain Murray

Murray might have lost the 1987 defence of the America’s Cup, but his fame within the fraternity is legendary, his yachting victories too numerous, and his immense talents rarely equalled.

Newcastle Herald “boating” writer Mark Rothfield spoke to Murray during the week of Kookaburra I’s visit and appended to the visit’s reporting a brief biography of the man that gives a better sense of his already vast achievements at the mere and tender age of 28.

I had a brief chat with Iain Murray during the week. He had just completed a series of trials against a revamped Australia I on Sydney Harbour.

Iain Murray, a young man, is certainly the linchpin to Taskforce 87’s success. He has tremendous natural ability and an almost perfect track record in several classes.
As a schoolboy he won a CHS regatta and sailed annually on Belmont Bay. He moved into 12-foot skiffs, sailing his own designs, and won just about everything.

He won his first world title in the demanding 18-foot skiffs after taking a chainsaw to his boat and “rearranging” the lines a touch. Four consecutive world and Australian titles were to follow.

Perhaps his most impressive victory came last season in the Etchell 22 yacht class. In probably the most talented one-design fleet assembled Murray and his crew, which included Peter Gilmour, surfed home on a power reach to claim the world titles.
His only blemish came during the 1983 America’s Cup challenge in the ill-fated Advance. But lack of time and money, and a consequent gamble, were more to blame.

Look at those sightseers crowded on the southern breakwater. The vantage below might have been from Nobbys.

Details of Kookaburra’s (also referred to by its sail number KA-11) Newcastle visit were gratefully purloined from Mr Rothfield’s reportage and Herald articles. Without them, these marvellous photographs of the great pioneer sailboat’s welcoming to Port of Newcastle would have been a rather dull affair.

The ‘golden bird,’ Kookaburra, is hoping for a strong southerly this morning to propel it up the coast from Pittwater for a historic visit to Newcastle.

A long, hard sea run would be an invaluable test for the 12m America’s Cup defence hopeful because many races will be won or lost in Perth by one of the yachts not finishing.
The ‘Fremantle Doctor’ tends to find any weaknesses.

Kookaburra 1 passes Nobbys Head, Newcastle, at 1pm on 29 July 1985

These water-level shots were not from another boat or the northern breakwater, but from helicopter. Above, you will see a chopper rotor at top left!

The first Kookaburra

KA-11 would “battle on” during it’s northbound sail unless the weather was too extreme, said Taskforce 87’s sailing manager, Peter Gilmour, who was among the crew. If the wind had been from the wrong direction or seas too rough, the boat would have been towed.

She left Pittwater at 4am on Saturday, intending to arrive around midday off Newcastle, enter the port at 1pm and be tied up at No 4 Lee Wharf by 1:30pm.

It was the first time “a 12” had visited Newcastle Harbour.

The occasion was as a promotion for Taskforce ’87. Publicity was, to the backers, almost as big a deal as the yachts.

An official welcome at 2pm was conducted by NSW Treasurer and Labor MLA for Wallsend, Ken Booth. The public then inspected the “sleek, gold racing machine” from a respectable distance that included anywhere except on the boat!

Iain Murray answered the stream of questioners curious about both KA-11 and the Cup defence. Hundreds of people waited hours to see the boat during the weekend, while the crowds lining both sides of the harbour numbered in the thousands - by one estimate, ten thousand.

NBN Television’s promotions manager at the time, Peter Brown, in providing that assessment, said also around 400 people were counted in queue from 4m on Sunday to ensure their chance to inspect KA-11 close up at Lee Wharf.

Kookaburra 1 passes Newcastle's State Dockyard on way to berth at No. 4 Lee Wharf.

Below ~ Kookaburra 1 leads her flotilla to berth.

Below ~ Kookaburra 1 crew prepare to drop canvas.

At 4:30pm Sunday, the gold-hulled beauty was winched from the water to leave Newcastle by road, eventually for Melbourne and that city’s annual boat show.

During removal – every opportunity for showmanship - the keel (a descendent of the famous Australia 1’s winged keel, speculation had it) was carefully masked by a green and gold tarpaulin, draped almost flamboyantly around the precious design mystery.

Kookaburra 1 has a Facebook page

If you wander over to this Facebook page, there’s a nice ‘about’ section that, Throsby hopes, they don’t mind him reproducing below.

The magnificent Kookaburra, a 12 metre yacht from the America's Cup currently being actively raced on Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay. 

Kookaburra, is a 12 metre class yacht, sail number KA-11, built in 1985 for the 1987 Americas Cup campaign. Designed by Iain Murray and John Swarbick, she was the first of three Kookaburra's built by the Kevin Parry's Taskforce 87 syndicate. Of the magnificent gold hulled defenders, Kookaburra III was ultimately selected to defend the Auld Mug for Australia in the waters of Fremantle Sound.

After the 87 Cup she was painted red and temporarily called Geronimo for the Francis Ford Coppola film WIND, that depicted Dennis Connor regaining the cup for Australia. At this time an engine was installed to aid filming of close up bow waves and other film shots.

A head was installed so that leading lady, Jennifer Grey, fresh from Dirty Dancing, who played a genius sail designer and tactician, didn't have to stand on the stern holding the backstay with the boys. A mast head sheave was installed for the all important, yet ludicrous plot turning point - the WHOMPER. Ah Hollywood....

In 1994 she was brought to Port Phillip, where she initially sailed from RMYS until room was found at Royals for her to take up residence. In 2001 she travelled to Cowes, Isle of Wight for the America's Cup 150th Jubilee. Many RYCV members joined in that expedition, and was a career highlight for most involved. She returned to Royals and entered syndicate ownership under which she has enjoyed a refit and sails regularly on Saturdays.

There’s plenty more on the Internet, especially at Wikipedia, if you search for “America’s Cup.”
Some tech specs are at a specialist website,

There is no second, Your Majesty

Finally, a nice read from Barry Tranter (did Throsby not attend NBHS with a lad of that name?) titled “A Moment with Murray” at

 Throsby’s favourite bit…

For me, there are several lasting images of Iain Murray, AM. The strongest is from a couple of decades ago.

I was out on a 30-ft yacht to watch the 18-ft skiffs race on the most evil day I have ever seen on Sydney Harbour. The howling sou’wester filled the air with spume and visibility was down to about 50 metres.

We found the windward mark by accident and waited for the boats to appear. And waited. And waited.

Finally, out of the veil of white, came the distinctive red hull of Color 7. The entire boat shuddered in the gusts, but the crew held her flat and coaxed her upwind. We shuddered in the gusts, too.

Color 7 rounded the mark and reached off into the murk. We waited another 20 minutes or so, but no one else turned up. There is no second, Your Majesty.

Color 7 was the only boat to finish that day and I thought that the result said something significant about her skipper and crew. For the record, Murray won a record six consecutive 18-ft skiff world titles from 1977 to 1982.
Some tech notes on this slide collection

While the story ends here, the photographs unfortunately don’t reach this far, or cover the docking and inspection. Crucial photographs in many related batches tend to be missing, due, one surmises, because they were loaned for news, a promotion, or a commercial, and never returned.

All except the inner harbour shots were taken from helicopter (NBN’s no doubt, an item of corporate pride at the time) and which managed to intrude a rotor blade into several pictures that, during scanning and colour grading, was mistaken for some dark room accident!

Prolific dirt spots visible in the skies were, with more high-resolution scanning and some zooming, found to be seagulls.

Colour balance is often an tricky issue with ageing colour-positive and colour-negative films. There are so many variables, from the original conditions of photography (temperature, atmospherics, shooting into or with the sun), developing, storage, scanning equipment, and colour-grading software.And, at the very end, one’s eyes can be deceived during the final tweaking decisions by room lighting and the colour temperature of the VDU.

Although our colour negatives looked perfectly natural to the eye on the light box, the inner harbour shots acquired a severe magenta cast when scanned. It might be the very old but very expensive scanner losing calibration of its light source, the effects of shooting into a western sky with a dark foreground, or just what colour negatives do with age.

All this is evident in the variability of images shown here.

Removing the magenta cast was achieved by trying to colour balance (null chroma, aka remove colour tinting) from assumed black, grey, and white areas in the scene. But lacking a grey scale chart in the captured scene, it’s guesswork as to what’s really black, grey, or white when choosing what to null.
Some of the aerial shots were deliciously almost over-saturated (excessive colour), but they looked so good we went with them as is. In wide ocean shots, the sea is so richly-coloured because, again, lacking a true in-scene black, the darker shades were ‘clamped to blanking level’ as they used to say in analogue television lingo. That was a decision, not being sure how washed out they might look with an arbitrary choice of black point.

Throsby hopes (with little confidence) that further digging through the collection will discover some images of KA-11’s inspection and hoisting from harbour, that they were separated from the batch that occasioned this tale of recent local history.

Below ~ Newcastle Morning Herald, Monday, 1 July, 1985

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