ON the night of Sept. 26, 1983, the America's Cup, that garish piece of Victorian silverware awarded in the world's oldest and most prestigious yacht race, was ceremoniously unbolted from its pedestal at the New York Yacht Club where it had perched for 132 years. Boisterous Australian millionaire Alan Bond and Australia II, his ``wonder from Down Under'' yacht, had wrenched the cup from the Americans and carried it halfway around the globe to Western Australia's Royal Perth Yacht Club, where it has since stood, swaddled in red velvet behind bulletproof glass.
Today, the ``Auld Mug'' is up for grabs again. For the last three months, a record 13 challenging 12-meter yacht syndicates from six nations have competed in hundreds of elimination races in the treacherous strip of Indian Ocean off the coast of Perth. In the semifinal races that began yesterday, the fastest four foreign challengers - New Zealand (Auckland), Stars & Stripes (San Diego), USA (San Francisco), and French Kiss (S`ete) - are battling it out to challenge Australia Jan. 31 in the best of seven America's Cup races. In the first of the semifinal races, Stars & Stripes edged out USA by a slim 10 seconds, and New Zealand routed French Kiss by 2 minutes, 45 seconds. The first two boats to win four times in the semis then battle each other, and the winner of that race meets the Australian defender.
This Down Under ``spar wars'' for the coveted jug - whose silver content is worth less than $500 - has already lured to Western Australia an international press corps of more than 1,800 and $1.8 billion in tourist-related investment capital. Qantas, Australia's national airlines, has confirmed 12,000 North America bookings for the cup races and is likely to increase flights between Sydney and Perth in January. And, while tourist traffic has been sluggish thus far, the Western Australian Tourist Commission expects 1.3 million visitors, nearly twice the norm in the same period.
So what is this part of the world coming to?
Perth, an English settlement founded in 1827, just 24 years before the America's Cup began, was once British to the nines. Today, it resembles California more than Cornwall: pristine surfing beaches, automatic sprinklers on suburban front lawns, neon signs, and tacky shopping malls.
A prosperous, sun-drenched metropolis of a million people, Perth is a tiny island of civilization sandwiched between the Indian Ocean and a desert that makes the Mojave look mild and miniscule.
``Perth is a happy oasis clinging to the edge of Western Australia,'' says John Wagers, a fifth-generation Perth resident and a proud member of the Royal Perth Yacht Club. His home town is so remote, the engineering professor says, that ``when I need spare machine parts, I fly 3,000 miles to Sydney.''
Western Australia, a state three times the size of Texas and with one-tenth its population, happens to possess the world's largest alumina deposit, three-quarters of Australia's gold, as well as huge iron, nickel, and diamond reserves. In this miners' paradise, Perth acts as one sprawling assay office -- a boom town that boasts more millionaires per capita than nearly any city in the world.
International tycoons such as Alan Bond and Robert Holmes `a Court keep Beverly Hills-style mansions in opulent suburbs overlooking the Swan River. Perth is an ``achievers' town.'' If you don't believe it, ask Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, former State Premier Charles Court, or Sir Billy Sneddon, former speaker of the Australian Parliament who, at one time or another, have all made Perth their home.
Twelve miles down the Swan River is Fremantle, an Indian Ocean port of 23,000 inhabitants. Here, the competing yachts are moored and depart daily to sail the 21-nautical-mile America's Cup course. Fremantle is nicknamed ``Abilene on the Ocean'' for its striking Victorian architecture and frontier tradition. Its low-profile, two-story gingerbread architecture, ornamented turrets, and filigreed wrought-iron verandas are boom-town legacies of the 1890s gold rush.
More than 150 buildings in Fremantle are registered by the National Trust of Australia. And most fittingly during the present America's Cup boom, with its best-preserved Victorian town, Australia has spiffed itself up to host an event that began during Queen Victoria's reign.
Fremantle has left behind its colonial days and is being rapidly gentrified with new chic restaurants and caf'es, exclusive clubs, and bungalows with rents inflated for arriving ``yotties.'' Tourist officials predict, by January, Perth will have more five-star hotels and restaurants per capita than any Australian city.
Everyone is getting into the restoration act, from the Aga Khan to Ansett Airlines. The Aga Khan, sponsor of the Italian yacht Azzurra from his Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, has transformed a Victorian trade-union hall into a swank Sardinian restaurant complete with imported Italian chefs, crystal, and silverware.
Ansett Airlines, half-owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch, has converted an old fish cooperative into its ``Golden Keel Club'' -- for international businessmen who will receive exclusive morning America's Cup briefings from Australian folk-hero John Bertrand, retired skipper of 1983 cup winner, the Australia II.
Despite all the effort to gussy it up, at times Fremantle still seems like a Mediterranean fishing village. It is sprinkled with Italian grocery stores where it's easier to find six different grades of olive oil than barbecue sauce. On Friday nights, Fremantle's South Terrace feels downright Neapolitan, with trattorias like Papa Luigi's and Gino's serving prosciutto, calamari, and gelato from sidewalk tables.
Some locals fear the Italian working-class town they affectionately call ``Freo'' is becoming an Australian St. Tropez. But many visitors, such as Diana and Jim Jessie, who sailed here from San Francisco, have become Fremantle boosters.
``We're thrilled the Australians beat the Americans in 1983 and got the Cup out of New York. It has helped take away all that Vanderbilt mystique around sailing,'' Mrs. Jessie says.