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Contesting the Contenders

by John Curnow, Editor, Sail World AUS 28 Jan 22:00 GMT
Hit The Deck - James Ellis © Mark Young

The Gippsland Lakes Yacht Club in picturesque Paynesville recently held the 2024 Contender Australian Championship. A magnificent 50-boat fleet booked in for the journey, and the sweeping majority got out there for the three-day affair that was mostly conducted in solid conditions.

It was described to me as, 'Lyn Wallace took care of everything off the water, with John Spencer and James Frecheville taking care of things on the water', and success was a word used often. Got to hand it to a club like this when this is the praise that flows afterwards, for anyone who does the work behind the scenes knows just how much gets poured into the funnel at the start for the liquid gold to arrive out the bottom in the end. No doubt those three individuals had a cast of many volunteers who made it all come to pass, so hats off to them, too.

Also a big shout out to Mark Young for his diligent work in securing me information and images, and always having a smile as he went about it. He drove from North of Brisbane to get to Victoria, and phoned up ahead of the regatta and asked, 'What can I do?' He got anointed as Press Officer, and the Sail-World team thanks him for reaching out. Nice one. Cheers matey.

Long and skinny wins the day

Anytime you get to say Bob Miller (aka Ben Lexcen) has to be a good one. In 1967 the Contender was trialled as a successor in the Olympics to the mighty Finn. Today, there are still fleets in Australia, the USA, the UK, and across Europe. A World Championship can attract on or over 200 competitors.

As Mark said to me, "Its excellent performance in stronger winds and waves reflects its Australian origin. For the last 40 years, the Contender has been the only high-performance single-handed dinghy that offers international racing in competitive fleets. It has proven to be suitable for a wide variety of sailors, both male and female."

Whilst needing agility and dexterity might be key, you do have a boat that is say 40 kilos lighter than a Finn, has 10.8m2 of mainsail, and you hang on a trap, which many a sailor prefer to the not-so-easy to perform constant hiking the Laser/ILCA demands. Boat handling becomes critical, planing allows for both snakes and ladders, and the tactical aspects of racing get played out incessantly.

Some 2800 vessels have been made over the years and you can see sailors from 20 to 60 years of age plying their trade at regattas around the globe, for there is something like 18 countries that contest the Contender. The winners span the entire age bracket, which no doubt further adds to the appeal of these 4.87m by 1.5m low-slung darts. Developments of the boat have enabled Contenders to be raced even in rough open sea conditions.

Quite a few classes have had some sort of resurgence in recent times due to Covid and the hectic pace of life. Single-handed OTB could well be one of the major beneficiaries in this way. Of course, living and dying by the sword attracts a lot of sailors who accept the nowhere to run, nowhere to hide notion on the chin. True freedom may well be the other edge of said sword, however.

Mark Young said to me, "The major reason that Contender fleets are strong, and growing, is because of the thrill sailors get from racing, those yahoo moments when it all comes together, trapezing from the rear deck on a reach at 16kts, or trapezing almost parallel to the water heading to the top mark. Throw in the competitive spirit of Contender sailing, and it's easy to understand why numbers are increasing worldwide."

"There are many quality Contender boat builders worldwide, and more recently a new builder entering the Australian market to cater for growing participation. Contenders last, and epoxy-built Contenders remain competitive for years; Mark Bulka having won three of his four World titles with a boat built in 2009. CST make competitive masts, and both Irwin Sails and North Sails both make affordable fast sails. Notably Irwin Sails took all three podium places at the recent Australian Championship."

"All of this means easy access to get started in the class, and plenty of state, national, and international competition to display your sailing skills. Add in a supportive and inclusive Contender sailing culture to boost you along, and there are plenty of off water fleet activities as well. The class is attracting successful sailors of all ages."

Let's race!

The Australian Contender Championships ran from 15 to 18 January, 2024. Stalwart Contender sailor, Jeff Owen, stated "The 2024 Nationals are done and dusted. 50 Boats was the highlight - awesome turnout. Gippsland Lakes Yacht Club is the perfect place to sail Contenders, and Paynesville is a great place for a holiday. If it wasn't the best Nationals, it must have been close."

There were a range of conditions to test everyone, and it attracted entries from as far afield as Townsville, Perth, and even Singapore! Many sailors have raced the craft for decades now, so a chance to catch up is always enjoyed. A 30-knot blow out on Day One was thus not wasted.

Blue skies, with 10-12 kts of consistent wind certainly aided the Race Officer in determining to catch up and run three races. Mentions go to Paul Wilson, Andre Webster, Richard Batten, Simon Barwood, and Callum Burns. A certain Mark Bulka probably staked his claim at this point, but in Victoria, anything can happen, and mostly always does.

The next day brought on heavy rain, strong, shifty winds and several storm fronts from the West to Sou'west. A challenge for all, whether running or competing in the racing. Young said, "Ollie McKeon took out Race Four. Against the high level of competition, this win by Ollie was significant; a fantastic result! Rounding out the results for Race Four were Simon Barwood, and Joey Randall. It was at this point that Simon dreamed of regatta suspension, for he was leading the series overall after this race. Wishful thinking, Simon!"

Race Five had the weather intensifying in the late afternoon, and to some degree favouring the heavy weather specialists. Previous National Champion Matt Mulder stepped up and took out the honours in his new boat, AUS 2811. Coming in second and third, respectively, were Mark Bulka and Callum Burns. When the fleet finally got back to the clubhouse, cold and soaked sailors could in the very least now look at a drop after five races completed.

A prudent decision to kick off early at 1100hrs on the last day with at least two and possibly three races to round out the series was a good way to deal with the potential of up to 30 knots running over the course.

Race Six was conducted in over 15 knots, and the waves appeared as well, for there is a decent fetch in those parts with and East/West lake system being fuelled by a muscley Sou'wester. Lindsay Irwin took the win, followed closely by Andre Webster and Richard Batten. There were a number of capsizes, all adding to the thrill that is Contender racing.

For what would be the final race, the breeze kicked in to a genuine 25 knots. Yes it was exciting, 'particularly on the reaches', I am reliably told. Richard Batten put on a masterclass to come in on top, no doubt a result of his 'maximum attack' mindset. Mark Bulka and Chris Williams rounded out the podium. It is important to note that the last time Williams had sailed a Contender was last Century. Given the field, and the conditions, the result is outstanding. Full results can be found here. You can also watch a short video below. <

The 2025 Contender title is to be sailed at the Humpybong Yacht Club in Queensland. It would seem they have a mark to reach, but their recent efforts would seem to put them in good stead. As for 2024, well Mark Bulka won, Lindsay Irwin was in second, and Andre Webster third. The Grand Master was 'Crazy' John McLean, but you would have to think that the Contender, along with Gippsland Lakes YC were the real winners here.

Need one? Got one!

Three from three on your first day, and you win by 16 points in the end after your seven-race series. Little wonder some say of you, 'There's Mark Bulka, then there's the rest of us mortals.' See, the thing is, he has six Australian titles in the class, four Contender Worlds to rack up, and is probably just shy of thirty major titles in a variety of hard-fought classes. Respect.

Been lucky to know Mark for a very long time now, and I really like his considered approach to things. He's great to talk with, and gets the job done with a minimum of fanfare. Nice. I was not too surprised to hear him say to me the other day that he is actively seeking out Tactician gigs around the place. He is the thinking person's sailor, and would be a very good addition to any crew looking to go places. The queue starts here...

Bulka and wife Vicki did put a lot into being the organisers of the 2024 event, but in typical style he deflected more onto the club and class itself. Looking at how many under 25-year-olds are racing, he said, "The Contender is such a great boat. It has that beautiful balance between speed and tactics, physicality and power; it really is just the best boat to sail."

It was definitely the big fleets that "...really got me in", as Bulka puts it. He still watches a lot of classes, and also puts back in by coaching from Minnows all the way up, with McCrae Yacht Club fortunate enough to get his services, as too Safety Beach YC, albeit to a lesser degree. There is no silverware on display anymore at his house, or elsewhere, but make no mistake about his desire to go out and get it.

OK. There it is. There is so much more on the group's sites for you. Simply use the search field, or 'edition' pull-down menu up the top on the right of the masthead to find it all. Please enjoy your yachting, stay safe, and thanks for tuning into

John Curnow
Editor, Sail World AUS

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