The Kulmar Family JJ Giltinan 18ft Skiff champions of 1976
by Frank Quealey on 19 Feb 2014
2014 JJ Giltinan and Australian 18ft Skiff Nationals - The ‘Past Winners’ list of the JJ Giltinan Championship shows '1976 Miles Furniture Stephen Kulmar', but that statistic doesn't tell the full story about this team and their success in the 18s.
Paul Ziems Stephen Kulmar Paul Kulmar after winning the 1976 JJ Giltinan Championship in Miles Furniture Frank Quealey © /Australian 18 Footers League http://www.18footers.com.au
Australia’s 18 Footers are famous for having generations of a family competing over many years, and occasionally even two generations competing at the same time.
What sets the ‘Kulmar Family’ apart is their unique achievement of 1976 when they won the coveted JJ Giltinan (world) Championship on Sydney Harbour.
The winning skiff was built by Les (father), with assistance from sons Stephen and Paul, in the garage under the family house.
Stephen Kulmar skippered Miles Furniture, with his brother Paul Kulmar and brother-in-law Paul Ziems rounding out the team.
The story began at the family home in Hunters Hill. Stephen recalls:
'Our mum Flora and dad Les encouraged my brother Paul, my sister Sue and me into joining the Hunters Hill Junior Sailing Club in Woolwich, at the head of the Lane Cove River'.
'We started in Sabots and when dad built our first boat, in the workshop garage at our home, we graduated to a Manly Junior (Blue Sky)'.
'Every Saturday during the summers of 64, 65 and 66, Paul and I shared the roles of skipper and crew, without ever achieving a win. We were making up the numbers, enjoying every minute of learning how to sail while building great friendships'.
'1966-67 Season, Paul and I moved on to Flying Elevens (Vagabond), again in a boat built by dad with help from us. Over the next three seasons we began to win some races and championships together'.
'In the 1969-70 Season I moved up to the 12ft Skiffs in yet another boat built under our house. This time Paul elected to stay in the Flying Elevens where he continued to show his real skill and won races'.
The progress of Stephen and Paul Kulmar to this point was a typical path for young sailors but the building of the skiffs by Les (with the assist of the boys) was the beginning of the story which would take the family to the top honours in the 18s.
During the 1970s the 12ft Skiff class was extremely strong in both numbers and talent and was closely watched as a stepping stone into the 18 Footers.
Again, Stephen Kulmar describes the family’s progression to the top of the 12s:
'Over the four seasons from 1970-71, we designed, built, rigged, modified and sailed a new 12ft skiff. We were encouraged to explore new concepts, but it wasn’t until the 1973-74 Season, when we took a completely radical approach with a tiny deep V stitch and glue design (which was built in one weekend) that we really broke through'.
'Vagabond was unbeatable right from the start, winning the NSW (Sydney Harbour), Inter-Dominion (Auckland Harbour) and Nationals on the Parramatta River, all in one season'.
The strength of this performance was even greater than it appears as the fleet included the likes of John Winning, Iain Murray, Michael Coxon and Rob Brown.
With such a record, it was hardly surprising that the Kulmars decided to move into the 18 Footers.
Stephen Kulmar: 'We decided to move up to the 18 Footers and try our luck in the Big League'.
'Paul Ziems, our brother-in-law, joined us from a successful career in the 16 Footers where he won most of the major championships with Graham McKellar'.
'Next, we managed to find a wonderfully supportive sponsor, Laurie Miles of Miles Furniture. He was a harbourside local and loved following us around the course on his powerboat'.
'Miles Furniture was very much a family business. The synergies and culture were very compatible with the Kulmar family value'.
'Our first Miles Furniture was an attempt to upscale our thinking, taking the deep V Vagabond stitch and glue idea into an 18 Footer. We also added an aluminum frame for structural support that included external wings (maybe the first separate wings ever on an18 Footer)'.
'We continued to work with Bruce Hewish, our sail maker from the 12 Footers. We again built the hull at home in the garage and rigged her on the front lawn (avoiding the telegraph lines) as we did with all our boats'.
'Our first attempt wasn’t right. The boat was too small and it lacked power under 15 knots, but our sponsors were happy with our efforts and prepared to go again'.
The 1975-76 Season was the highlight of the team’s career, but its achievements came only after finely planned design then on-going development throughout the season.
Stephen Kulmar recalls: To compete and win, we needed to rethink and take a more evolutionary approach to match the Bruce Farr-designed KB, which was sailed superbly by the great Dave Porter'.
'We thought we could go one better with a slightly smaller, lighter, flatter boat. We spent the winter months in the workshop garage at home designing and building our second Miles Furniture'.
'An important new member to the team was Jack Eden, Miles Furniture Advertising Manager and surfing photographer. Jack became an integral part of our team, following us around the race and training courses'.
'His photography assisted our new sail maker Mike Fletcher, of Elvstrom Sails. Every week we re-cut or made new sails based on the findings we gathered from Jack’s photography'.
The just reward for the meticulous planning, building and ongoing development of the boat was a victory in the 1976 JJ Giltinan Championship, on Sydney Harbour, when the Miles Furniture team defeated the defending champion Dave Porter, in KB.
It was an outstanding performance from ‘the family’, and, as Stephen Kulmar points out: 'The quality and quantity of the fleets we sailed in was full of talent with the likes of McDell brothers and Russell Bowler of NZ, along with Dave Porter, Mike Chapman, Bob Killick and Dave Griffith, pushing us in the Sydney fleet' made the win even greater in an era which produced some of the greatest racing in the history of the JJ Giltinan Championship.
'In an attempt to retain our title', Stephen says 'we went back into the family workshop to design and build our third Miles Furniture, which was a slightly larger, rounder boat that never quite performed across the spectrum of wind and conditions in the way of the previous Miles'.
'We went to Auckland to defend the title but managed only one win (by 15m in the final race) in a black nor’easter, only to be disqualified for being a premature starter'.
'With the ongoing support of the Miles family we built two more Miles Furniture 18s and competed in the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons, however, by this time our family sailing team had broken up and at the end of the 1979 season the Kulmar family officially retired from 18 Footers'.
'In all, we designed and built five 18 Footers, four 12 Footers, along with a Flying Eleven and a Manly Junior in the family garage workshop at Hunters Hill. We rigged them all on the front lawn of the family home, avoiding mum’s roses and overhead telegraph lines'.
Stephen Kulmar’s sailing career moved to yachts. He has since competed in eighteen Sydney-to-Hobart races and has three ‘Hobart’ handicap wins.
When you meet the Kulmars it’s obvious that the family unit is still as strong as ever.
Like a number of other past Giltinan champions, the team will be at the Australian 18 Footers League on Sunday 2 March to watch Race 2 of the 2014 JJ Giltinan Championship, proudly presented by Sydney City Marine, and help celebrate its 75 years history at an after-race barbeque function to be held in the park alongside the rigging area.
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