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Waltzing around Matilda Bay

There are 39 steps up to the cup. It was 10 minutes to knocking-off time for Harry Harris, one of the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s three part-time America’s Cup attendants, and his day had been an average one.

He had guided a routine 300 visitors upstairs to the committee room where the cup – as lavish a silver overstatement as a Victorian ball-gown – stands behind plate glass against a background of red suedette. Harry Harris’s feet had counted those stairs and if I did not mind going up there without him he would stay in his chair by the door.

In color on the wall. Alan Bond, the man whose triumph over the New York Yacht Club and with it the rest of the world was celebrated by the whole of Australia, beams with victorious triumph. The teeth, the smile, the tan, all badges of a 1980s winner. Flanking the ebullient Bond, formal in fading black and white, elegant hulls with flannelled crews clip through the waves of long forgotten summers.

Out on the late afternoon sparkle of Matilda Bay, boats tugged at their weekday moorings, metal shrouds and halyards shrilling in the breeze. A truant few puffed up their spinnakers and raced for a distant marker. There are always sails to be seen here on the protected waters of the Swan River.

This is the view from the office towers of Perth’s business district, a litter-free city idyll of high-rise new and low-rise old, reprieved and restored and partially pedestrianized. The girls toss curls that might have been cut in Rome, wear frocks that would be fine in Bond Street, and order designer salads for lunch. The men look, well, Australian and drink good beer. No one stops to listen to the haunting, throaty pipe of a didgeridoo played by a skinny aboriginal boy.

Innovative is the knee jerk word in cooking circles. The verb to ensuite refers to bathroom alterations, the de facto relationships of social statistics refer to shack-ups, and lifestyle refers to everything from kitchens to aspirations.

People pursue their dreams more energetically, or perhaps more openly in Western Australia than in other places. They change their houses often, creating a property market that is large for the state’s one and a half million population – two thirds of it in Perth. They change partners often too. Of every five children in primary schools, three are said to go home to a single parent. Another often repeated assertion is that Perth’s rape rate is the highest in Australia, quite in contradiction to the feel of the place, which is safe, not to say dull.

As often as not Western Australians turn out to be Jerseymen or South Africans, Londoners, or from Yorkshire or Weybridge. And whether they had arrived two or 20 years or more ago, the idea of moving on is a cherished possibility. They are slow to trade in their nationality.

Despite all the affordable dream homes with pools and entertaining areas, jarra wood luxury kitchens, turbo spas, games rooms, and gardens plumbed to water themselves, despite high employment levels and one of the most agreeable climates in the world, there is a grudging case of mind which casts long shadows over human relationships and any but the most universal of material dreams.

Success is acceptable as long as the successful ones do not overstem an invisible boundary of ordinariness. Making money is very OK. Moving on socially, culturally or intellectually is suspect. They call it cutting down the tall poppies.

Between Perth and its port Fremantle at the mouth of the Swan, the river is flanked all the way by bungalowed suburbs. On the north shore are Claremont which has the best out-of-town shopping. Subiaco, a place to buy books or antiques. Cottesloe, a good address. The south shore road runs through Applecross, Alfred Cove, Bicton and Palmyra.

Fremantle is where the sailing action is. The America’s Cup races begin in October with the Australian 12-metre yachts racing each other for the honor of defending the cup. Simultaneously, the rest of the world will be competing to put up a challenger. The final races between a single Australian defender and the best of the rest will be held from February 5 to 27, 1987.

When Alan Bond brought the cup back to an incredulous West Australia three years ago, Fremantle was dozing in the sun. In the docks the sheep ships which look like skeleton multi-story car parks were doing regular business in live meat for the Middle East. Freo Markets, held every weekend in a turn-of-the-century market building behind terraced cottages for pensioner warders from the prison, were already offering salt-free sausages, hand-painted T-shirts, bric-a-brac and fancy boomerangs.

Across the street the Sail and Anchor was keeping up with demand for its famous beers: Dogbolter, Brass Monkey stout and Matilda Bay lager.

Since the win, money has poured into the town. Six-figure sums are the only ones – rock lobsters from up the coast, dhufish, gummy shark anyone notices. The town has changed and of course not everybody thinks for the better. If there is a single Victorian building that is not being given a face-lift I did not spot it. There is so much fresh paint about you can hardly smell the sea.

The weekend crowd on the waterfront has come to spot yachts and sample the seafood and chips. Across the harbor from the terrace of Lombardo’, a multi-million dollar restaurant complex, the hull of the Yacht Club Italiano’s boat is laced secretively into scarlet covers. The prow of South Australia, the boat next door, peeps over blue canvas screens.

Out on the water these wind- powered racing machines hold pacing trials round offshore markets – sleek fast yachts followed everywhere by their tenders, minder boats that carry extra sails, lunch boxes and provide the power to get safely in and out of harbor.

Turning the boats, training their crews and learning to make the most of local conditions takes months of solid work. It cannot all be fun but hearing Harold Cudmore, skipper of England’s Crusader Challenger, propose a particular run to his pacing partner with the words ‘it might make good sport’ brought the point of the exercise back into focus.

While cement mixers churn out the developments that the money men hope will put Western Australia on the international map, the yachtsmen are laboring to ensure that they will still be in town for the final races next year.

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