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16ft skiff photos turn the clock back to 1971

by Bob Chapman 1 May 2020 20:44 BST
'Swanbourne' in the Manly 16ft Skiff Club Regatta - 3 Oct 1971 © Mike Fletcher

Bob Chapman reminisces about some photos he particularly enjoyed, and wanted to preserve their story here for all to see.

The above photo was taken on Sunday 3 October 1971, by Mike Fletcher, Head of Elvstrom Sails, Sydney, from his runabout. A couple of weeks later I heard about this photo and got in touch with Mike to see if I could get a copy - I recall going up to the Elvstrom loft in Bathurst St in the city at the time and ended up with two photos.

The boat is the 16ft skiff 'Swanbourne', skipper: Frank Smith, crew: Murray Rottenbury, Kieran O'Connell and Bob Chapman. Location is Balmoral, shortly after rounding the windward mark in a very fresh (extreme) westerly.

The skiff was competing in the annual Manly 16ft Skiff Club Regatta, traditionally held over the October long weekend back in those days. The day before, Saturday, racing was cancelled due to the extreme conditions - fierce westerly winds had created havoc all over the Sydney metropolitan area; the same day that Bill Barnett's boatshed in Berry's Bay burnt down (started by cinders carried on the hot dry wind from an incinerator of a neighbouring timber yard).

On the Sunday it appeared that conditions may have moderated, the crew of 'Swanbourne' rigged their skiff at Little Manly with their no.2 intermediate rig for the afternoon race.

However, shortly before they were ready to launch the westerly freshened rather dramatically and a last minute decision was made to change to their smallest no.3 mainsail (i.e. no time to change the rig, just the main) - this mainsail was off another skiff owned by skipper Frank Smith, the 'Debbie S' and carried the sail colours for that skiff, two blue diamonds (rather than the blue pennant, red cross normally carried by Swanbourne).

The race got under way on schedule from a handicap start in Manly Cove. Only two skiffs managed to complete the first beat to the top mark in Balmoral - 'Swanbourne' and 'Friday', a new and recently launched skiff owned/skippered by Peter Sorensen. 'Friday' carried a larger sail than 'Swanbourne' as they either did not have time to change down or perhaps because it was a new boat, did not have a smaller rig available to change to?

'Swanbourne' rounded the top mark first, but when pulling away from the mark was hit by one of the wild gusts shooting down from the hills that surround Balmoral Beach, spraying out onto the water. The sudden acceleration in the flat water unbalanced the crew and pushed them aft while the skipper was unable to access the boom vang to ease it off (as would normally be the case - besides, he had a bit on), the end of the spinnaker pole (stowed along the boom, and extending well beyond its end) "kissed" the water forcing the boom into the centre of the boat with the skiff lifting up onto its side at speed, yet the jib has goose-winged, the skiff is square to the wind.

This is the moment when the photo was taken just before the skiff capsized. The crew righted the skiff and continued on the wild downwind ride, but the further they sailed from shore the more extreme the conditions became - more wind, bigger waves, culminating in another wild capsize, this time with serious damage to the mainsail. A support craft took them in tow. Meanwhile, the skiff 'Friday' suffered a similar fate with that action also caught on film - see photo below. The last two skiffs standing were unable to continue on the day, but the memory of the experience lives on.

'Friday' crew - skipper: Peter Sorensen, Crew: Dave Sargent, Dave Swales, Glen McIndoe.

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