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Coles Phinizy
December 11, 1967
In the old days (above) Australia's small-boat sailors piled 14 men and a boy in their 18-footers and bashed each other's heads in. Now they just pile on sail and try to sink the enemy
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December 11, 1967

A Bloody Wild Way To Go Sailing

In the old days (above) Australia's small-boat sailors piled 14 men and a boy in their 18-footers and bashed each other's heads in. Now they just pile on sail and try to sink the enemy

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A quarter of a mile out in the windy harbor of Sydney, Australia there are two rocky outcrops of land. One is called Shark Island, the other Clark Island. It is claimed the climate of these two islets is noticeably warmer than that of Sydney itself, because Australian sailors have been racing their 18-foot boats around Shark and Clark for 70 years, losing their tempers. Many fine hulls have been smashed over those years, many sails have been shredded and many a nose has been bloodied. Often when a skipper begged for room to clear a mark and got none, he simply belted his nearest rival with a spar. In the old days during 18-footer races, it was customary for good friends and neighbors to clout one another and grapple in the water. "There was such heat generated," 73-year-old Skipper Georgie Robinson declares, "that the grass had a hard time growing on Shark Island."

Such behavior is, of course, shocking. It runs absolutely counter to all the genteel traditions of Corinthian (i.e., amateur) yachting. But then there never was anything remotely genteel about 18-foot sailing, and even today the boats are recognizable first and foremost by the huge commercial emblems on their sails advertising firms who back them, just as garages and breweries back bowling and baseball teams in the U.S.

Consider the far from genteel precedent set by Tommy Doyle, who skippered an 18-foot boat called Desdemona in Sydney harbor back in the 1930s. When his boat ran afoul of a rival 18-footer called Aberdare and capsized during a race, Skipper Doyle did not merely threaten to bash his opponents with the tiller of his craft, as he had done in an earlier contretemps. Instead, while his crew battled the men of the Aberdare, breaking fingers and noses, Doyle himself climbed the forestay of the rival boat in an attempt to put her out of commission. Even when the crews were done fighting and the Aberdare was sailing free again, Doyle was still up there trying to chop down her jib. By reeling from one tack to the other for a quarter of a mile, the Aberdare crew managed to shake Doyle off. During the battle spectators following the race in ferryboats cheered wildly.

Things have calmed down a bit since Doyle's day, but still in a single race of 18-foot boats in Sydney harbor there is often more writhing emotion, finagling, self-inflicted jeopardy, heroism and drama than other sailing classes experience in a whole season. The reason is simple. Any active sport that is not burdened with restrictions naturally attracts very active men, who make the game livelier still. Over the years many spunky sailors like Tommy Doyle, who would rather lose an exciting race than win a dull one, have been attracted to the racing in Sydney harbor primarily because the Australian 18-foot open sailboat itself is a wondrously wild and contrary creature that keeps trying to take off and fly while its crew struggles to keep it from sinking. There are only two things that can be said for certain about an Australian 18-footer: it is 18 feet long, and it will not bite you.

A comparison is in order. Conventional racing sailboats of comparable size today (the 17-foot Thistle, the 19-foot Lightning) carry about 170 square feet of sail going into the wind and, at most, 450 square feet when running before the wind. Such a conventional boat is so relatively docile that a competent Sunday sailor can manage even with a picnic hamper, a reluctant wife, several disinterested children and other such dead weight aboard. In contrast, when racing in winds over 18 knots, the Britannia, an Australian 18-footer of the 1920s and '30s, often carried a crew—hold onto your seats—of 14 men and one boy. Sailing into the wind, she set about 1,000 square feet of sail. Running before the wind, she often carried 2,800 square feet—a mainsail, a balloon jib, a spinnaker, a water sail, a topsail, a ringtail and God knows what else. The bowsprit of the 18-foot-long Britannia stuck out 21 feet. Her boom, with a ringtail spar extended on it, measured 42 feet, which means that if the mainsail and ringtail ever swung around in an accidental jibe there was quite a convincing piece of lumber swishing overhead. The Britannia's three-piece spinnaker pole was 45 feet overall, and any sailor who wants to test his skill and patience should try setting a 45-foot pole, as Britannia's forward hands customarily did, with eight or 10 other crewmen milling around in the same 18-foot hull. The least desirable job on the Britannia belonged to the one boy aboard. While he was being trampled by everyone else, it was his duty to bail water out faster than it came aboard, which was not always possible.

When the Britannia was sailing on the wind, her massive crew served as quick and nimble ballast. One minute a dozen of them would be seated three deep on each other's laps, leaning back well over the starboard rail. In the next minute they would all be scrambling across the boat to assume the same position on the port side. Since there was a big boom swinging from port to starboard when this beef trust was hustling from starboard to port, and since there was a centerboard box and assorted clutter in the way, tempers—quite naturally—were sometimes frayed. When approaching a windward leg, if some lout prematurely dropped the center-board, shearing off a crony's finger or toe, tempers got very short indeed. If at about the same time the long bowsprit or boom of a rival boat poked into the cockpit, well, there could be trouble.

The crew of the Britannia came from Balmain, a Sydney district that has always molded very solid characters, and since seven of them were brothers and cousins, all named Robinson, obviously their esprit de corps was of a high order and rivals were cautious. Indeed, in the late '20s when a boat called the Arline failed to give them room rounding a mark, Britannia's men felt justified in trying to press their rival's boom underwater. This so irritated the policemen and slaughterhouse workers who crewed on the Arline that one of them, a meatcutter by trade, came out on the boom with a knife in his mouth. In a trice he was flattened by a two-gallon stone demijohn flung from the Britannia. The Arline promptly broke off the action and sailed free, with her skipper ranting because the oaf lying unconscious in the slack foot of the mainsail was getting blood all over it.

Since the mid-1930s special ferryboats have followed the 18-footers on their weekend races, carrying packs of merciless critics. As a consequence, when losing a race, the valiant crews have suffered more humiliation than other sailors. Although doubtless on the spectator ferries there is a soul or two simply out for an airing, most of the crowd are betting men—stern no-nonsense punters. This betting on sailboat races is an intriguing phenomenon, particularly so because it is altogether illegal.

For some years after the turn of the century—by statute at least—Australia was still throttled by Victorian prudery. Bathing on Sydney's fine beaches was not allowed. During Church Hour—from 10 to 11 on Sunday—most public transportation in Sydney stood still in its tracks. Until last year there could by law be no organized Sunday sport in Sydney (hah, hah), and betting, except in authorized places, is forbidden. The ferryboats that follow the scrambling 18-footers on Sunday are ostensibly carrying lovers of the sport, "but the fact is," a veteran named John Q. Anonymous confides, "the reason the bloody sport has been so popular is because everybody bets like bedamned. You can't stop it. The police put blokes aboard dressed like plain sports, you know, wearing sandals and like that, but they don't fool the real punters. A real punter can smell a cop."

In the opinion of Bob Lundie, the present secretary of one of Sydney's two 18-foot sailing clubs, the most memorable case of an 18-footer letting its punters down occurred when a craft called Marjorie tangled with Top Dog in a no-handicap championship series in 1947. Lundie was crewing on the Marjorie at the time and is a reasonable authority on all such tiffs since he was one of the Balmain battlers who served for 16 years on the old Britannia. In fact, it was Lundie who once cooled off the flamboyant Skipper Tommy Doyle by simply reaching out and tapping him gently in the face with a spinnaker pole. After winning one heat of the championship series in 1947, according to Lundie, the Marjorie was heavily favored by the punters. In the second heat, as she ran for the finish, trailing Top Dog, her crew was particularly irritated, because earlier in the run the boom of the Top Dog had gotten locked between her shrouds and mast. About 200 yards from the finish the Marjorie was drawing abreast of Top Dog, running very close by. "We got a puff of wind," Bob Lundie relates, "but, strangely, we didn't gain on her. You know you can't bloody well see a thing ahead when you have the big spinnaker on, but I happened to lift the tack of our spinnaker, and there's Joe Pearce of Top Dog, a Rugby man of 16 stone, and he's hanging onto the whisker of our bumpkin. We can't possibly gain with him hanging onto us. Well, as soon as I see Pearce, I start forward to crack him one, but Mick Russell—he's our sheet hand—yells, 'No!' Mick runs up from our stern, and he grabs me by the arse and shoots me down in the boat. 'No, no!' Mick cries. 'He's mine.' And with that, Mick cracks Pearce in the mouth and nose. Now, Mick hit Pearce in a Sunday race, and Pearce was still bleeding from various contusions at the weekly meeting Tuesday night. Well, anyway, at the time Pearce cops the punch in the face, we're only 50 yards from the finish line, and Top Dog is still ahead. So our skipper, Tony Russell, yells out, 'Jibe her! We'll drown the bastards!' Well, we jibed her. Our boom came swinging around with a ringtail on her, and it would have caught Top Dog for sure, but in the excitement everyone of us had forgotten to let the bloody backstay go. So we capsized. We missed Top Dog—oh, we hit her, but not hard enough—and she sailed on across the line, a winner. We were the favorites, so nobody on the ferryboats loved us after that. The bloody punters and everybody said, 'Leave 'em there,' and they did leave us. We were swimming in the water, right in the ferry track, my bloody oath, until 7 o'clock at night, when our good friends the Water Police pulled us out."

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