Over the years, because of the lighter spars, synthetic sails and other technical advances, the classic Australian 18-foot open boat has changed. Today the Australian 18-footer is an exquisite instrument, as finely tuned—and about as fragile—as a Stradivarius. Although sail area is still unrestricted, the modern 18-footer rarely carries more than 1,400 square feet—still quite a lot considering that the most comparable international class, the Flying Dutchman, is two feet longer and never carries more than 400 square feet. Even though the sail area has been reduced so that the craft can be managed now by a skipper and three trapeze-swinging hands, the 18-footer remains a cantankerous thing.
The 18-foot skippers no longer have mayhem in their hearts, but they are still grand gamblers with a go-for-broke spirit. Len Heffernan, current hero of the 18-foot skippers, is, by trade, a maintenance engineer, responsible for the care and feeding of the brontosaurian presses that print one of Sydney's newspapers, The Sun. In his off hours, he designs 18-footers for love. A dozen of the 46 boats now racing regularly in Sydney harbor were built by Heffernan on his own molds. In his 19 years as helmsman he has competed in more than 1,100 races and has won 16 major titles. But in 18-footer sailing, disaster dogs the best of men. In a series of 13 races in the middle of the last full racing season, Heffernan won five and "swam" eight—that is to say, he either came first, or, going for broke, capsized for one reason or another. During this hard-luck period, the newspapers needled him, one of them suggesting that if he was going to swim so consistently he should put Dawn Fraser in his crew. Since he has been in the game a long time, Heffernan was not at all dismayed, and for the next race on a bright February day he showed up smiling and a trifle hung over. The moment he stepped onto the lawn of the Sydney Flying Squadron, where his boat is harbored, the wind, as if sensing the presence of a master of the art, suddenly freshened from almost nothing to 10 knots, lifting spinnakers that were spread on the ground in colorful salutation. The tall palms guarding the lawn tossed their heads in recognition as Heffernan passed, and pigeons strutted. Bruce Clifford, a rival skipper, beckoned Heffernan over to inspect a new spinnaker he had bought for a bargain price. "It's Japanese Terylene of some kind," Clifford said. "You think it will hold its shape, do you?"
Heffernan stretched a bit of the fabric between his experienced fingers. "Well, I don't know," he said. "Three hard blows and you may have to cut it up and use it for pajamas."
Heffernan then sought out his own crew, which was readying his boat, The Sun. "You know, Lennie," Forward Hand Lester Crowe advised him, "this is the Commodore's Handicap today, and if we win we each get one of those nice little cups."
"Ooh, then you've got to win, love," Lester Crowe's wife, Sandra, cooed acidly, "because we've only got 40 like it at home already."
Jib Hand Ron (Wrecker) Johnston apologized to Heffernan. "I can't go into the clubhouse and buy us all a beer. No shoes. You remember that we burned my sandals last night."
"I remember," Heffernan said ruefully. "I flew all week without a drink, and then at the barbecue last night, I crashed. Why did we try to barbecue my shoes and your sandals? You know, I loved those shoes. I really did, and I couldn't even find the buckles in the ashes."
Alternate Jib Hand Ron (Whizzer) Tearne came over to the boat. "Good day, Lennie," Whizzer said. "Have you seen Kevin O'Keefe?"
"Good day, Whizzer," Heffernan replied. "What do you want Kevin for?"
"I was out drinking beer with Kevin last night," Whizzer said, "and I want to find out if I had a good time."