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How do you describe this thing called sailing?

by John Curnow 31 Mar 22:30 BST
Sayonara Cup winner Whimsical (sail 217) and defender Karabos IX running downwind in Saturday match race series on the River Derwent. © Penny Conacher

If this is man's oldest challenge, then what are the adjectives you would use to explain the phenomenon to someone who did not even know what a sail is? How would you enthuse them, imbue them with vigour, and prevent the reflux action so many associate with bobbing around on the sea? Like any field of endeavour, there are machinations, nuances, intrigues, stratagems, distinctions, and gradations, many with utterly confounding names.

To answer it, perhaps we could look to some of those who have both exceptionally recent references to it, and those whose memories might give some explanation as to the passion. For after all, there is nothing absolutely nothing half so much worth doing, as simply messing about in boats. And thank you, Kenneth Grahame...

Other important elements would be history. Case in point would be the recent running, and subsequent winning of the Sayonara Cup between the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania (RYCT), and the victor this time, the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron (RSYS). This is a challenge with more than 115 years of history behind it, even if on various occasions there have been significant passages of time where it has not been raced for, and merely occupied space in a cabinet.

The Sayonara Cup (we spoke a lot about it in Famous Martini and Left Languishing) hails from an era where grace and style were as quintessential as timber and canvas. It was just after the Federation of Australia, and the powers that be thought that match racing between two glorious, and fastest of their time yachts would mark the occasion well. Unabashedly, it was modelled very heavily on the America's Cup, and the initial race was between the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria and the RSYS. Just like America, the Victorians sailed to Sydney on the dashing Sayonara, won the event, and the legend had begun.

Sailing is indeed a sport for life. Take Gordon Ingate, who is still very actively involved at 93 years young, and was the Patron of the successful challenge this time. He also loaned them his boat for the task. Yet on board both boats were two youth sailors, so the question goes a begging, just exactly what is this legacy that has them all so interested and inspired?

21-year-old Oliver Burnell sailed on the losing boat with Nick Rogers, and Leigh Behrens. He started at 7 in the International Cadets at Sandy Bay, then went on to skiffs, keelboats and sportsboats. A lot of his sailing time is on board, Philosopher, where the owner saw the opportunity to provide young sailors with a pathway after dinghies. The result is that everyone is under 25, except for the owner.

He had three weeks to prepare in the International Dragon that was the class for the challenge, and said, "With guys like Nick and Leigh it made for an easy transition. We had our training sessions and away we went. I really like the idea of the deed of gift, as I grew up watching the America's Cup, and the Sayonara Cup is very similar in that way. I also like that it is raced in traditional monohulls, as they are really tactical, which appeals me, and I find it inspirational."

"I also like the history and how much it meant to so many. We were a fully amateur crew, mixing it with best, and it is cool to compete against these sorts of guys. Afterwards, David Chapman would say to me that it was one of the hardest days he sailed. All in all it was a great experience, and I really noticed how much it all flowed seamlessly, which made me feel like I had been doing it for years. No doubt this was as a result of the two others on board!"

David Chapman sailed with David Giles and Matt Whitnall on, Whimsical. He is the nephew of one of our greatest ever tacticians, and arguably most famous, Hugh Treharne. He was part of the afterguard in the 1983 victory by Australia II. "I have looked up to him for a long time. I used to stay with he and Auntie Dixie when I would do regattas on Pittwater. When he speaks, you listen to the gold that comes out! I like his approach to taking it on, I've kind of adapted it for me, and I am not going to let you in on any of those secrets", said Chapman, who is incredibly accomplished himself.

"I really liked the idea of the Sayonara Cup for there is a massive hole in match racing around the world. We had a lot of spectators on the water, and afterwards they were all saying it was how close and how interesting it was, due to the multiple lead changes, and so forth."

"This was the first time I have done it. I flew done with Gordon, and it was fantastic to glean his knowledge of this event, and the 1977 America's Cup. Gordon was our training skipper, and I also got a lot of David Giles too. To see how much it all meant to them, and what it has down for both Australian sailing and the RSYS, where it lead to a challenge for the America's Cup was tremendous. The Sayonara Cup could well be possible for us winning in '83. Yes. I found it all very inspirational."

"We had some close situations at the finish line, and we put ourselves in the best place to capitalise on any error, or room to move that may appear. I would like to see it remain in displacement craft, but maybe on a bit bigger boat, so as to have a real team environment. This is good for overall participation not only for the boats involved, but the clubs overall. The Dragons did provide a good platform for so many years, and have shown how closely matched speed then means the skill of the sailors becomes paramount."

So what does a person who has both sailed for the America's Cup, and then also been the Race Director for the 34th and 35th challenges for the Auld Mug think? Iain Murray is now Performance Director at Australian Sailing, and of the return to the calendar after yet another hiatus, and subsequent winning of the Sayonara Cup by the RSYS he said, "It was great to see the RSYS send such a great team of experience, passion and sailing talent down to Hobart and bring it back to Sydney once more."

"The Tasmanians probably thought they were on solid ground in the Derwent with the laid back approach of Gordon and his young bucks. Seems like the strategy worked well. Now its Sydney Harbour's turn to defend like the NYYC!!" (Murray would say more in Famous Martini)

Finally then, the living legend that is the great Colin Beashel of Australia II and Olympic fame commented that, "It is good to see it back up and running. I never competed in it, but it is wonderful to have it happening more, as presently most of the match racing is for our youth sailors only. I look forward to seeing the Sayonara Cup continue and build upon this momentum."

"Match racing is a great thing for anyone to do, as it sharpens up your skills, boat handing, manoeuvres, and it is incredibly fun and exciting. I wish we did more of it during our Olympic campaigns, as you really get a lot from it. We saw this when we got into the Soling after the Star, in terms of body use, tactically when going head to head with the opposition and also around the marks of the course."

"Fleet and match racing are not mutually exclusive. The two do go together. Match racing is shorter, quicker, shorter, quicker, and really exciting as it is so close. You tend to have a go much more often in match racing, rather than covering a position, as you do in fleet racing. The Sayonara cup can be a vehicle for the continual improvement of these sorts of skills, so bring it on!"

So is it really that big a deal? Well, yes. Australia has a long, broad, and proud history in the sport of sailing. If this is to continue, then events like the Sayonara Cup have to flourish. In the last America's Cup, Team USA was actually sailed by Team AUS, and many other teams had a significant number of Australians on board. Which particular craft will be used in the next year's Sayonara Cup is still under discussion, but already challenges have been received from Tasmania and Western Australia.

To retain our pre-eminence in the field, then young sailors need to be as inspired as the ones who went before them. Equally, should it ever come to pass that we can once again challenge for the America's Cup, then healthy participation in events purposely designed to draw out the best in tactical match racing will be critical to the overall success.

In the end, you describe sailing by what it is. Passion. It's the kind that overrides all that steps before it. The kind that makes you review decisions, make alternative plans, pull short of outright deception, but colour and enliven the vision of others, put all else aside, override conscience, make you step up in conditions many would cry about, lower your gaze, narrow your vision, and accept nothing but outcome.

Perhaps this is why t is so fun? Certainly works for me...

Author's Note:
With many thanks to Nicole Shrimpton for her terrific enthusiasm, energy and input. Also to the Sydney Morning Herald for their support of sailing, and the Sayonara Cup, as published here.

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