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Pioneers return to Audi Hamilton Island Race Week

by Laura McKee on 20 Aug 2013
Hitchhiker crew Peter Briggs far left credit Laura McKee © Andrea Francolini Photography http://www.afrancolini.com/
Four of the pioneers from the inaugural Audi Hamilton Island Race Week in 1984 are back to grace the boating stage and mark 30 years of history for one of the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest yachting regattas.

Among the four original entries is Peter Briggs, skipper of the Perth based Hitchhiker, a Frers 40 that made its Race Week debut at the very first regatta.

Hitchhiker is the only combination of original boat and owner from 1984 racing in the First Fleet Class. The other first fleeters are Ron Knot’s Dusty Muzzle, William Grice’s Inch By Winch and Ruby Weber’s Lloyds Too Impetuous – all racing this year under different owners to 30 years ago.

The beautifully maintained 7.5 ton Hitchhiker was transported 5,000km from Perth across the bare Nullarbor Plain to the island on a semi-trailer, apparently the longest distance in the world to drive a yacht of its size.

With his three combined trips to Hamilton Island, in 1984, for the 25th anniversary and now the 30th anniversary, Briggs has spent 30,000km on the road transporting Hitchhiker to the world famous regatta.

'In the old days when we trucked over in ’84 we didn’t have to have a lead car and those sorts of things. Today, there’s a lot of rules and you have to have a car at the front saying ‘vehicle following’ which increases the cost considerably - it’s a big effort,' he said.

Briggs has witnessed Hamilton Island’s transformation and the regatta blossom into a highly regarded and popular event on the sailing calendar.

'There were 93 boats at the first one, which is quite a lot of boats for the inaugural regatta.

'Having a yachtsman in Bob Oatley as the island owner has been good for yachting,' he said, referring to the patriarch of the Oatley family who has campaigned many boats over the years

'The island is more modern, there’s more facilities, more people and the boats have become more high-tech of course,' he added.

Briggs fondly recalls the events that unfolded in the 1984 regatta. In fresh breezes Hitchhiker played the underdog role and won by a mere one point after entering the final race four points behind.

Hitchhiker was built in 1980 and has always been Briggs’ favourite, even though he had the choice of sailing a number of other modern boats he owned.

So advanced was Hitchhiker’s design and construction, and her performance so competitive for the era she was selected to represent Australia at two Admiral’s Cups.

'The reason why Hitchhiker was a great boat in its early days, not so much today, is because it was an all-rounder. It was quick in light, medium and heavy weather,' Briggs said.

A bold battle flag donning a large red thumbs-up signal is flying proudly on Hitchhiker’s forestay while the crew is immaculately dressed in matching red and white crew uniforms.

The concept behind the boat’s moniker and flag dates back to 1980. Briggs’ skipper at the time was brainstorming names and came up with ‘hitchhiker’.

'Initially we thought ‘what a dumb name!’ but hitchhiker means ‘free lift’ and that’s what you want in sailing, rather than when the wind knocks,' Briggs explained.

'The thumb went with the hitchhiking and red is my favourite colour so we went with that.'

Now in his seventies, Briggs said he hasn’t lost his competitive spirit after all these years on the water, warning other competitors that his old vessel is a force to be reckoned with.

'We want to beat up on all of the other older boats. There are three other boats here that were in the original event and we would like to keep ahead of them. That will give us plenty of competition.'

Racing at Audi Hamilton Island Race Week continues today before a rest day tomorrow, followed by three more days of competition for the 157-boat fleet representing all Australian states, the ACT plus overseas entries.

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