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Convincing the winner - looking back at the 2002 and 2003 JJ Giltinan 18ft Skiff World Championships

by Frank Quealey 31 Jul 00:54 PDT

There were 'sail-off' races to determine the overall winner of the 1969 and 1978 JJ Giltinan World Championship regattas, but two contests held on Sydney Harbour in 2003 and 2004 produced the most amazing finales to determine the winner of each one.

Incredibly, champion US skipper Howie Hamlin, who was the winner of both regattas, had to be convinced by championship officials that he had really won each series.

Following the final race in 2002, Hamlin and his General Electric-US Challenge crew were unsure who had won. After the final 2003 race, Hamlin didn't believe his team had won at all and had to be convinced, with the help of a calculator in the office of the host Australian 18 Footers League, that he had defeated UK's RMW Marine (Rob Greenhalgh) by just 0.35 of a point.

The similarity of the final result of each regatta was mirrored by the similarity of how the final result occurred. Each win was only decided on the final leg of the last race in each championship.

In 2002, Howie Hamlin asked, "Who won it?" In 2003 he said, "I'm still in shock".

Hamlin's reaction clearly shows the closeness of the overall result in both championship regattas but it doesn't indicate the level of the racing throughout both regattas which produced so many winners in some heart-stopping finishes.

In 2002 there were five different winners from the seven-race regatta. In 2003 there were six different winners from the seven races, and the series produced the closest racing in the history of the JJ Giltinan World Championship.

Going into the 2002 series, UK's RMW Marine looked a likely winner, but a disqualification from Race 1, a "horror day" 21st in Race 3 and a broken jib track soon after the start in Race 5 relegated the team back to a very disappointing 8th overall - despite wins in Races 2 and 7.

Hamlin's GE-US Challenge with two wins in Races 1 and 4, defending champion John Harris (Rag & Famish Hotel) with a win in Race 2 and Daniel Phillips (Derwent Racing) with a win in Race 4 set up a great three-way battle for championship victory as they went into the final race.

Matt Felton (Newport Arms Hotel) was close behind the trio after taking out Race 6, in a 20 knot southerly, by just 6s from Rag & Famish Hotel.

RMW Marine showed her windward speed advantage in the 12-18 knot south-east breeze in the final race, and scored an all-the-way win from Hugh Stodart's Express Post, but all spectator eyes were fixed on the three-way battle for the championship.

As the breeze freshened later in the race, Derwent Racing fell back and the race for the title became a two-way struggle between GE-US Challenge and Rag & Famish Hotel. The US team was now going to have to beat The Rag by two places to win the championship.

On the final work across the harbour to the finish line off Double Bay, Hamlin's team was in third place, ahead of Tony Hannan's Bell Partners and Michael Coxon's Sunday Telegraph, when Rag & Famish Hotel gained on a big wind shift and suddenly became a real threat.

In a desperate tacking duel, the US team was holding back The Rag's challenge but then Bell Partners began a challenge to threaten the previously safe third place being held by GE-US Challenge.

Hamlin and his team of Mike Martin and Trevor Bayliss managed to hold off the Bell Partners challenge by just 1sec to cross the finish line in third place and become the 2002 world champion.

The 2003 regatta was even closer than the 2002 series.

It produced the closest racing in the long history of the JJ Giltinan World Championship with six different winners from the seven races (GE-US Challenge being the only two race winner) and the winning margin in three of the races was just 1sec.

Incredibly, in Race 5, GE-US Challenge won by 1sec from dead-heaters RMW Marine (Rob Greenhalgh) and Omega Smeg (Trevor Barnabas). Three world 18 footer champion skippers crossing the finish line of a championship race only 1sec apart.

18 footer legends John Winning (Yandoo) and Trevor Barnabas (Omega Smeg) won Races 1 and 2 respectively before Gary Phillips (Aristocrat) became the first of the three '1sec winners' when his team defeated RMW Marine in Race 3.

Phillips' team was the only one not to capsize in the 28-knot north-east wind and choppy seas.

Following the Hamlin team (Mike Martin and Rod Howell) victories in Races 4 and 5, Hugh Stodart (Express Post) became the third '1sec race winner' when his team defeated Tony Hannan's Total Recall in Race 6. The Total Recall team then reversed the loss with an all-the-way win in the exciting final race of the regatta.

With the racing all done, when Howie Hamlin was told later he had won the championship, he could only say, "I'm still in shock".

"Going into the last race it seemed unlikely we could win as we would need to finish first or second and RMW Marine team would have to sail their worst race of the series."

RMW Marine led the GE-US Challenge team early in the race and things looked all over for Howie's team, but the US prospects were a little better when the crew managed to work their way into second place by the last leeward mark and RMW Marine was in fourth place.

At that point, it was still RMW's title, but when the team lost two more placings on the final work to the finish, when it got on the wrong side of a shift, everything changed.

Under the complicated point scoring system used for the regatta, the crews were confused and it took officials and a calculator in the Australian 18 Footer League's office to convince Howie Hamlin that he had retained his JJ Giltinan World Championship title.

While Hamlin was "still in shock", RMW Marine skipper Rob Greenhalgh was philosophical about the loss, "It was a great race. We were in good shape, but didn't have a very good last beat. Unfortunately, we couldn't quite put it together."

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