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18ft Skiffs: The 18 Footer League's spectator ferry

by Frank Quealey 21 Sep 14:55 PDT 16 October 2022

Eighty-seven years of continuous tradition will continue next month when the Australian 18 Footers League's iconic 18 footer spectator ferry will again follow all the club's racing on Sydney Harbour.

On Sunday, October 16, the League will conduct Race 1 of the annual Spring Championship, which is a seven-race championship series contested by a fleet of around 20 teams, which will continue each Sunday until its finale on Sunday, November 20.

The incredible Australian tradition goes back to January 1892 when the a leading Sydney retailer, named Mark Foy, who was also a keen sailor as well as being a very successful businessman with an acute eye for promotion, formulated his plan to popularise sailing as a sport on Sydney Harbour.

A critical component of his plan was a spectator ferry, which would become a floating grandstand to give patrons a close up view of the action-packed racing.

The success of Foy's plan was instant and has maintained its relevance to 18ft Skiff racing over the following 130 years with spectator ferries still following the Australian 18 Footers League's 'modern boat' racing each Sunday during each Australian summer season.

When the NSW 18 Footers Sailing League (now known as the Australian 18 Footers League) was established in 1935, the newly-formed club began to conduct its races each Sunday.

It was a situation which created the greatest era of 18 Footer ferry patronage since Mark Foy's first day.

Ferry patronage was unprecedented in the mid-1930s there was absolutely no major sport being staged on Sunday. In particular, members of the nearby racing industry, and the punters who regularly followed their 'favourites' with gambling, flocked to this new Sunday form of racing, and up to seven spectator ferries followed each race over the League's seasons between 1935 and 1939.

In 1937, the League's Secretary, Mr. James Joseph Giltinan came up with the idea of having a Worlds 18 Footer Championship on Sydney Harbour to coincide with Sydney's 150th Anniversary in January 1938 and the original championship regatta in 1938 was another huge success.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper described the first race, "The grip that 18 footer sailing has on the Sydney community was clearly demonstrated yesterday when a record crowd watched Taree win the first heat of the world championship on the harbour."

"The crowd at Circular Quay was so large that extra steamer (ferry) accommodation had to be provided at the last moment, while craft of almost every conceivable description were in attendance. The foreshores, particularly Bradley's Head and Steel Point, were thronged with spectators."

At the beginning of the 1938-1939 season, the League President Horwitz announced "There can be no doubt that the modern type 18-footer appeals to the sporting instincts of every Australian as is evidenced by the fact that our patrons increase in numbers as each season progresses. Two seasons ago we felt proud of being able to record 150,000 patrons for the season. Last season (1937-1938) we were just under the 200,000 mark."

Racing was interrupted by world unrest in the late 1930s-mid 1940s, then more professional sport began to emerge each Sunday, which caused a decline in ferry numbers. Despite the decline, numbers were still very good and the 18s were still very much an iconic sport which attracted good media coverage and good general public support.

Australia's love of gambling also ensured that spectator numbers retained at a healthy level and there were several bookmakers willing to 'do their business' on the spectator ferries at every race day.

It was always amusing as a spectator on the ferry, which during the period between the 1940s-1980s, was chartered by the League from the state government, there were signs clearly stating "absolutely no gambling permitted", and which the bookmakers were using to attach their 'bookie boards' with all the odds to the various gambling options available.

The popularity of the spectator ferry has always been strong and is shown as part of a 1979 article advising locals and tourists of 'what to do on Sydney weekends'. "You can have an unforgettable afternoon on the Harbour in the ferries that follow the 18 footer yacht races. You don't need to be a sailing enthusiast to enjoy this. By the time you've had a few drinks from the bar and bet a few dollars with the bookies on board, your attention will be riveted on these spectacular sailing boats."

Over the past 20 years, the spectator ferry has become a more 'social' way to watch the racing up close, but the change in style still caters for those wanting to 'support' their favourite team with a small financial 'investment' as well as a few cheers.

As well as hardened racing enthusiasts and international visitors to Sydney wanting to see the skiffs race around the Sydney Harbour courses, sponsors have also used the spectator ferry as a means of entertaining business partners and other associates as well as a vehicle to improve staff interest and morale as the employees support 'their' boat.

Despite the cost problems associated with the Covid restrictions placed on the number of patrons allowed on the spectator ferry in the 2021-22 season, the Australian 18 Footers League was determined to maintain the tradition and made sure there was a ferry each race day for its followers and enthusiastic spectators.

Once the 2022-23 season gets under way on October 16, spectators can follow the action on board the club's spectator ferry, as they have done for the past 87 years. Booking online through the club's website is essential, 18footers.com/18-footer-racing/spectator-ferry

For anyone who can't make it out onto the water, the League's live broadcast team will be out on Sydney Harbour to capture all the action. Live streaming is available at www.18footers.com by clicking on the '18 Footers TV' link.

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