Australian America’s Cup Yacht Buzzed by the US Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis

The 1962 America’s Cup was held just a month before the Cuban missile crisis at Newport, Rhode Island. The Australian challenger yacht Gretel went up against the yacht from the New York Yacht Club, the Weatherly. Gretel was the first Australian challenger, the first America’s Cup challenger from a country other than Britain or Canada, and the first from the southern hemisphere. It was owned by a syndicate headed by media magnate Sir Frank Packer (Kerry Packer‘s father and James Packer‘s grandfather).

An avid sailor himself, JFK had gone up to watch the first of the races, arriving in Newport on the evening of September 14 in time for a gala dinner that night hosted by the Australian Ambassador to the United States, Sir Howard Beale. The black-tie affair was held at The Breakers at shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt‘s former estate. Among the 300 or so guests was Sir David Ormsby-Gore, the British Ambassador to the United States and a close friend of Kennedy’s. In his toast, JFK paid tribute to the spirit of competition and especially the way that Australia punched above its weight in the sporting world.1

I know that all of us take the greatest pleasure in being here, first of all because whether we’re Australian or American, we are all joined by a common interest, a common devotion and love for the sea. And I am particularly glad to be here because this Cup is being challenged by our friends from Australia, this extraordinary group of men and women numbering some 10 million, who have demonstrated on many occasions, on many fields, in many countries, that they are the most extraordinary athletic group in the world today, and that this extraordinary demonstration of physical vigor and skill has come not by the dictates of the State, because the Australians are among the freest citizens in the world, but because of their choice.

Therefore, Ambassador, you are most welcome here.

This Cup has been challenged in the past by our friends from Great Britain. We are glad to see Australia assuming the responsibilities of empire in coming here, and we’re particularly glad to welcome you in the year 1962. This is a trophy which the United States has held for over a century, unlike the Davis Cup. And we do have a feeling, Ambassador, we do have an old American motto of “One cup at a time.”

There is no question that this kind of national competition produces the greatest good will among nations. The most recent indication of that, of course, were the games held at Indonesia which produced a wonderful feeling of spirit in all of Asia, and I am confident that these games will produce the same kind of good will between Australia and the United States.2

I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea–whether it is to sail or to watch it–we are going back from whence we came.

Therefore, it’s quite natural that the United States and Australia, separated by an ocean, but particularly those of us who regard the ocean as a friend, bound by an ocean, should be meeting today in Newport to begin this great sea competition. This is an old relationship between the United States and Australia, and particularly between Rhode Island and Australia.

In the 1790’s, Ambassador, American ships, mostly from Rhode Island, began to call regularly at New South Wales. Their cargoes, I regret to say, consisted mainly of gin and rum, and the effect was to set back the athletic development, until the recent great temperance movement in Australia, for many years.

In 1801, Governor Philip Gidley King of Australia complained to London, “Such has been the certainty in America of any quantity of spirits being purchased here that a ship cleared out of Rhode Island for this port with a very large investment of spirits, which I positively forbade being landed, in consequence of which she left this port with upward of 13,000 gallons of spirit brought to Australia for sale.” And he told the American Minister Rufus King to warn the Rhode Island merchants not to try to market their rum in Australia. I need hardly say that the Rhode Island merchants continued to do their compassionate best to quench this thirst which was felt so strongly in Australia.

However, Australia became committed to physical fitness and it’s been disastrous for the rest of us.

We have the highest regard for Australia and we, as you said, Ambassador, regard them as very satisfactory friends in peace and the best of friends in war. And I know that there’re a good many Americans of my generation who have the greatest possible reason to be grateful to the Australians who wrote a most distinguished record all the way from the desert of North Africa, and most particularly in the islands of the South Pacific, where their particular courage and gallantry I think met the strongest response in all of us in this country.

But I don’t really look to the past. I look to the present. The United States and Australia are most intimately bound together today, and I think that–and I speak as one who has had some experience in friendship and some experience in those who are not our friends–that we value very much the fact that on the other side of the Pacific the Australians inhabit a very key and crucial area, and that the United States is most intimately associated with them. So beyond this race, beyond the result, rests this happy relationship between two great people.

I want to toast tonight the crew, the sailors, those who made it possible for the Gretel to come here, those who have, for a hundred years, defended this Cup from the New York Yacht Club, to all of them. As the Ambassador said so well, they race against each other, but they also race with each other against the wind and the sea.

The next day, JFK and Jackie Kennedy boarded the Destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (named after his elder brother who had been killed in World War II) to watch the first race from the ship’s deck in the sunshine. The Weatherly won.

JFK and Jackie Kennedy watch the first race in the 1962 America's Cup from aboard the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., off Newport, Rhode Island. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. 15 September 1962 / KN-C23943

JFK and Jackie Kennedy watch the first race in the 1962 America’s Cup from aboard the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., off Newport, Rhode Island. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. 15 September 1962 / KN-C23943

Three days later, Gretel fought back to level the series 1-1. It ended up being the only race of the series that Gretel won. Weatherly won the following three races, securing the cup yet again for the United States on September 24, 4 wins to 1.

“[W]e have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea–whether it is to sail or to watch it–we are going back from whence we came.”Getting Gretel home to the Royal Sydney Yacht Club wasn’t a case of simply setting sail off into the wild blue yonder. 12-meter yachts are designed for inshore match racing, not ocean crossings. So to get it home half-way around the world they had to load it on a freighter and ship it back.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. As they headed south they found the U.S. Navy paying special attention to freighters heading into the Caribbean. The freighter, the Port Wyndham, had set sail from New York on October 23. That same day, on President Kennedy’s order, the U.S. Navy instituted a blockade line to stop ships going to Cuba. It was the darkest period of the Cuban missile crisis, and along with every other freighter in Caribbean waters during the period, the ship carrying the Gretel came in for special attention from the U.S. military.

The Port Wyndham, carrying the Gretel, did not make it back to Sydney until mid-December. When they finally arrived, the crew told reporters of their brush with the Cuban missile crisis half-way around the world. As the Associated Press report put it in a December 19 report:

The crew of the freighter Port Wyndham, which brought the Australian yacht Gretel home from the America’s Cup competition, reported today they were buzzed repeatedly near Cuban waters by U.S. military aircraft. The freighter sailed from New York on October 23 and passed through the Caribbean during the Cuban crisis.3

  1. “Remarks in Newport at the Australian Ambassador’s Dinner for the America’s Cup Crews,” 14 September 1962, Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy: 1962 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1963), doc. 383. 
  2. The 4th Asian Games were held from August 24, 1962 to September 4, 1962 in Jakarta, Indonesia. 
  3. Associated Press, “Yacht Carrier Buzzed Off Cuba,” Washington Post, 12 December 1962.