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Steely Bill – One man who will forever be upstanding

by John Curnow 2 Dec 2019 00:34 PST
Former Chairman of the Etchells IGC, and Life Member - Bill Steele © Event Media

It was at the 50th Birthday celebration for the Etchells last November that one Bill Steele was left standing alone in the room. He was not there on his own, for the Girdis Room at the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron was a complete sell out. It was just a mark of admiration of the man for the Class, and of his fellow Etchellians for the great sailor, ‘Steely Bill’, as he is so affectionately known.

John Bertrand AO had the floor as the keynote speaker, and as he began to wind up he asked all those who had been to five Etchells World Championships to be upstanding. It was a lot of the room. Then JB asked those who had not yet made 10 to sit back down. It went on to 15, 20, 22 and so forth, until it got to just the two souls, and at 24 it left just Bill Steele standing. He was at his 28th, by the way.

At the recent Syd Corser regatta off Fremantle, Bill sadly sailed his last race. He was only a few months short of his impending 80th birthday, and was also keenly eying off next year’s World Championships on the same track, as both a competitor, and someone devoutly entwined with the firstly the winning bid, and then also the organisation that goes into holding such an event.

Bill was absolutely no stranger to tipping in, having been involved in the 1997 Worlds in Hong Kong, and then Perth in 2006. He was also a Life Member of the International Etchells, and a former Governor and Chairman of the International Governing Committee.

A former pilot, initially with the RAAF, and then the Royal Flying Doctor Service in WA, Bill and Etchells combined in Hong Kong when Bill was a Boeing 747 pilot with Cathay Pacific in the early 90s. The distinguished gentleman Ian Kingsford-Smith, a former Chairman of the IGC himself, said this of Bill, “After he retired from flying he moved back to Perth, where he was a member of Royal Perth Yacht Club, and a key member of the Swan River Etchells Fleet. He was instrumental in them being awarded the 2006 Etchells Worlds, which were sailed out of the Fremantle Sailing Club.”

“He was successful in negotiating a very attractive shipping arrangement, thereby enabling members to bring their hulls from the USA and UK to Perth. He was also the mover behind the Swan River Fleet being awarded the 2020 Etchells Worlds, which will again be sailed off Fremantle in November next year.”

“Bill served as an International Governor of the Etchells class for six years from 2005 to 2010, and was Chairman of the International Governing Committee for two years from 2009. Bill was elected a Life Member of the International Etchells Class during the 2012 Worlds in Sydney.”

“Whenever Bill thought something had to be done, he was very determined to ensure it in fact happened. Bill was a Governor of the class when it was suggested that the class One-Design rules needed to be rewritten to comply with World Sailing’s Equipment Rules of Sailing language.”

“He became involved, and after quite a long and detailed process, the revised Class Rules finally became a reality. He was also the person who fought for Australian Sailing to vary the Special Regulations, so that Etchells could legally use anchors that complied with either the Etchells Class Rules, or the Australian Sailing Special Regulations.”

“The enjoyment and satisfaction Bill gained from sailing Etchells was clear from his being a regular competitor at so many Etchells World Championships. One of the highlights of his long Etchells involvement was when he won Race Five of the 2002 Worlds in Auckland. It was a win he really treasured.”

“Over the years Bill made a lot of friends within the sailing community. It was always a very enjoyable occasion to sit down with Bill, and have lunch or dinner either when we visited Perth, or he visited Sydney. He will be a big loss to the Etchells Class, and he will be sadly missed”, said Kingsford-Smith in closing.

Another of those great friends Bill had from sailing was Tim Patton. Patton would say of the man he knew so well, “Bermuda and Perth are almost exactly antipodal. Half way around the world is a long way to maintain a friendship, but it has been my honour to have done so with ‘Steely Bill’.”

“Most of our time together was at Etchells regattas, and I suspect that we would have competed in some twenty-five or so World Championships at the same time. Excluding a World Championship in Hong Kong, where I crewed for Bill, we were fierce but very friendly competitors. Our wine bet, a bottle on every race, became a talking point among much of the rest of the fleet, and our distinctive wine glass spinnakers showed where we were on the downwind legs.”

“Bill and his lovely wife Annabelle, with whom he was smitten, have visited us here in Bermuda, and we have spent non-sailing time together in England and Australia. Good wine also seemed to be a feature of these times together. Bill also adored his children Fiona and Andrew, and was very close to both.”

“Bill always conducted himself as a gentleman, on and off the water. As a member of, and ultimately the Chairman of the Etchells Class International Governing Council, Bill endeared himself to all. He was respected, whilst being quietly dogmatic about the things that matter.”

“I also raced, here in Bermuda, on the same day that Bill sailed his last race, and as I washed my wine glass spinnaker I had a quiet cry, which then became a sob at the thought of not seeing my mate any more. In the week that has passed my thoughts have turned to many of the positives from having been close to such a special person. Some of his expressions are classics. ‘That is about as much use as an ashtray on a motorcycle’, was certainly one of his favourites.”

“Did I mention that he was bloody quick in a breeze?”

Rob Rooke who knew Bill for at least five decades, and maybe even six, was on the Rescue Boat that took him ashore. He simply said, “I was glad that we were there for him when he needed us.” Steely Bill will certainly get to sail on now eternally with that famous wine glass kite…

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