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18ft Skiffs: Simon Nearn, 30-year journey to the top of the class

by Frank Quealey 9 Jun 09:07 BST

Simon Nearn was living In the UK when his association with the 18ft skiffs began. Over the next 30 years, he has not only retained his passion for the excitement of sailing and competing against the world's best 18ft skiff sailors, he is now the Commodore of the Australian 18 Footers League, the world's leading body for the class.

Simon sailed Optimist, Mirror, 420 and then the International 14 for years, and recalls, "We were exposed to the 18s via the fantastic Grand Prix Sailing years and some of the Brits made it down to sail that series; Tim Robinson, and Neal MacDonald, se we all knew about it."

"It kicked off in the UK when Julian Bethwaite came up with the great concept of the B18 with Dave Ovington, and we went from a fleet of none to 15 boats very quickly, attracting the best talent in the UK. Lawrie Smith, Neal Mac, Zeb Elliot, the Budgen brothers, Dick Parker, Martin Jones, Andy Partington, Rob Drumgold, Jarrod Simpson, Ian Southworth, Andy Hemmings, Tim Robinson, Ado Stead, etc. as well as many of us out of 14s."

"My first ride on an 18 was with Martin Jones and Kevin Anderson in Garda, and "there was no looking back after that."

"It then really took off in the UK and Europe with Adam Wilson's insane 18 Tours of Europe."

It was an exciting time for the 18 footer class as it began to establish far greater international competition that it had done over the years prior to the early 1990s.

According to Simon, "The best venues, an amazing journey through Carnac, Bandol, Sardinia, Garda, Molveno and St. Moriitz. The Aussies would come over for that and we were able to go head-to-head with the best out of the League. I got to know the guys like Jimmy Beck, Steve Quigley, Pete Calligeros, Graham Turner, Trevor Barnabas. Pete Sorenson, and others, I still count as friends today."

"I worked with Tim Robinson to build up a UK sailing TV show, sponsored by Bausch & Lomb, and then Brut Aquatonic, which was shown on mainstream TV and toured the UK - inspired by Grand Prix Sailing and with one design 18 racing."

"We found a great sponsor in Nigel Musto and put a B18 together, firstly, with Martin Warren, who sadly passed away, then Andy Partington, who I was sailing 14s with, Ian Southworth, Rob Drumgold and Jarrod Simpson. We won the Europeans but got pipped for the UK title in a very dramatic finale in Torquay against Lawrie, then came down and raced the JJG."

"Ian Trelevan was the local Musto agent and Craig Ramsden had Line 7. We were very well looked after, however, the League had decided not to pursue the B18 and the Murray boats were sailing bigger rigs and faster. That was the beginning of the end for the UK fleet as the Julian / Ovi dream of an international one design fleet was effectively over."

The League administrators were pro-active and backed up their decision with support to the UK sailors by attending European championships. During the mid-to-late 1990s, only the top fifteen local Sydney boats automatically qualified for the JJ Giltinan Championship so the boats which didn't qualify for the JJs were also chartered to UK teams. Simon recalls "we sailed Fosters Light Ice in 1997."

"The League also sold us second hand boats. We off loaded Musto, and bought Smeg from Trevor Barnabas, which became Burgs, and Tim Robinson bought Tyrrells Wines, which became Rockport."

Robinson, together with Zeb Elliott and David Witt, using Ian Short sails, became the first skipper from the Northern Hemisphere to win the Giltinan Championship in 1999. Simon Nearn, Ian Southworth and Jarrod Simpson also put a campaign together and came back, with the skiff re-named Burgs, to give it another go. Unfortunately, Simon remembers, "our skipper 'Southy' had a work crisis and couldn't make it but Dan Philips stepped in at the last minute."

"It was Burgs presence in Cornwall that led Tim and I to organise an amazing International Regatta in Fowey, where we had the whole town on board to welcome sailors from around the world. It was events like that, Garda, San Francisco and, of course, Sydney that made sailing the most iconic dinghy so exciting. I still haven't found anything that comes near to replace it"

Seemed only natural that Simon's next move would be to get down to Australia more regularly, or permanently, and start racing against the world's best skiff fleet every week.

It began in the 2006-07 season when, as Simon remembers, "When Grant Rollerson asked me to come and sail De'Longhi with him and Dave Lightfoot, I had just sold my business and was looking for some time out so came down with Fiona and my daughter Jessica for the summer....and never left."

"I had always been on the sheet but when Grant gave up the helm in the 2007-08 season, I took the opportunity to step back. I bought a Musto skiff and sailed all winter to remember how to steer from the wire and I was very lucky that my two good friends and ex-JJG winners Craig Ferris and Chris 'Riss' Cleary, were brave enough to help me in my first year."

"We established a great relationship with De'Longhi, especially Tom Mitchell who, with the support of his CEO Paolo Albertoni, sponsored my team for eleven years."

De'Longhi also sponsored South Sydney Rugby League Club, 'the Rabbitohs' and Simon's teams took on their colours and raced as De'Longhi-Rabbitohs for four seasons (2010-11 to 2013-14, inclusive). According to Simon, "the year the De'longhi-sponsored 'Rabbitohs' won the Rugby League championship, we had some funny moments sailing with the 100kg-plus footballing Burgess brothers, insights from Michael Maguire and memorable moments winning the traditional Queen of the Harbour race with Tom's daughter Maddi."

League administrators have always been pro-active since the club's formation in 1935, and were keen to expand the knowledge for the future and invited Simon to become a member in 2008, "I was able to bring the perspective of someone who had come from a different environment of 18s, then In 2011 I was privileged to be asked to take over from John Harris as Commodore."

"I have seen my role as to follow the tireless efforts of those that have come before me, take the load off 'Woody' (John Winning) who has put so much in over so many years and work with a great board to build a club that members, sailors and sponsors want to be a part of."

"As a club we have an unrivalled opportunity to partner up with privately owned businesses as well as the corporate world, such as Winning Group, Rag & Famish Hotel and Smeg and, more recently, with Balmain, Shaw & Partners. Sixt and Lazarus Capital Partners to showcase Sydney Harbour and the dynamic sport of 18 footer racing by our live televised racing."

Simon led teams, sponsored by RMarine Pittwater then Appliancesonline, between 2018-19 and 2020-21, before he began his present association with Burrawang Village Hotel and Young Henrys Brewery, racing the skiff as Burrawang-Young Henrys.

"Peter Dean at the Burrawang Village Hotel, in the Southern Highlands, and Young Henrys have been amazing sponsors for my team over the last three seasons since coming on board, following an introduction from the Winnings and their close family and sailing history together."

Simon's Burrawang-Young Henrys won the 2022-23 Season Point Score (which is an accumulation of the results for every club race during the season) but the League's 2024-25 season on Sydney Harbour will add a special chapter to Simon's 18ft skiff sailing career.

"This year, I am excited to be sailing with my son Max. He is still quite young at 16 years, but has some 29er and 49er experience and will work hard over winter, as part of the Club's Academy program, to get up to speed (and weight!), and we have my good friend Cam Macdonald onboard to balance the youth with experience."

"The JJ Giltinan Championship was extremely close at the front in 2024 and it was a battle through the entire fleet as talented young teams are getting better and better, and their boats closer and closer, in performance. Also 90% of the 2023-24 season teams have confirmed they will be back."

In summary, Simon says "For our sailors we have the unique privilege of a club funded sailing model, but with it comes the commitment to be at the top of your game and put in the time to be at every race and support those around you. I am proud of the culture of the 18s; it embodies the Aussie gung-ho spirit with a sense of family and mateship that binds us all together."

"I believe, it's on all of us to make sure this fantastic class is around in Australia and internationally for years to come"

On 2 February 2025, the Australian 18 Footers League celebrates the 90th anniversary of its first race on Sydney Harbour and can proudly boast many wonderful achievements of its administrators, who have taken the sport to the world.

Don't Forget: Video coverage of all the racing action from the Winnings 2024 JJ Giltinan Championship and all the club's racing throughout the entire Australian 18 Footers League's 2023-24 season is available on the following link: 18footers.com/18-footer-racing/18-footers-tv.

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