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
December 11, 1967

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."

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."

Kevin O'Keefe showed up a moment later. "We were in a Chinese restaurant," he reported to Whizzer, "and you were singing choruses because it was their New Year's."

"What bloody beautiful timing," Whizzer said. "We go in a restaurant and it turns out to be New Year's."

For some reason this reminded Heffernan of the party at the Squadron when someone tied a halyard around the leg of a lady guest and tried to haul her up the flagpole. "Only got her a third the way," Heffernan recalled, "she was kicking and squirming so." This reminded him of another story and another and another, until it was almost too late to make the starting line. And it is rather a pity that they made the line, because they fouled their spinnaker jibing around Shark Island and capsized once again.

Disaster was the order of that day. Gambling in 18-knot winds, eight of the 20 crews swam. Considering that they are relative novices, the crewmen of the boat Daily Mirror were doing well until one hand suddenly looked forward and exclaimed, "We've lost our bloody bow." On the beat to the first mark, Gold Thimble was footing well, intent on catching lighter-handicapped boats and cheered on by the ferryloads of punters, until a rival, Beryl, closed in fast, unseen, on the opposite tack. Beryl's boom went through Gold Thimble's mainsail. Beryl capsized, and the crew of Gold Thimble also went in but managed to scramble back aboard their half-swamped boat. As if this were not grief enough, while Gold Thimble was limping home, a trunk-cabin sloop skimmed by her too close to windward. A sudden gust brought the sloop's mast over hard and carried away some of Gold Thimble's standing rigging.

Sydney harbor of a windy weekend gets traffic such as few other ports ever see. While the 18-footers are beating to their first mark, there may be a fleet of big 8-meters coming the opposite way, spinnakers billowing. Little 12-footers skitter about. Dragons and a variety of classes criss and cross the harbor. Large freighters from distant ports use the same waters, and ferryboats, both orthodox and hydrofoil, make their appointed rounds. In addition, there are casual Sunday sailors loose, and, naturally, outboard runabouts, as well as larger stinkpots. "It's a crush," an Englishman, Robert Chandler, observed on seeing it for the first time. "Boats of this kind and that, a little of everything and a lot of many things. A regular dog's breakfast, as Australians say. I would only be faintly surprised if, in the middle of the whole mash, the Loch Ness monster reared its head."

On the windy day that Len Heffernan and his crew took their ninth swim, most of the favorites ran into trouble, and a large, grumbling mass of punters who played it safe with the short odds lost their shirts. In the clubhouse that evening someone within earshot of Len Heffernan said that it had been miserable.

"Aw, there is no such thing as miserable," Heffernan replied. "You know, miserable is only a state of mind. Win or swim, it's a good kind of boat we sail. I reckon it's about the best class of boat there is anywhere, so how can I ever be miserable?"


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)