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Location. Location. Location.

by John Curnow, Editor, Sail World AUS 20 Nov 2022 13:00 PST
Location. Just one of the many drawcards for the ever-burgeoning Sail Port Stephens regatta © John Curnow

The Land Rats have it as a footnote on every page of their bible. In bold, too. And they probably chant it every morning at their group love-ins before hitting the phones. A bit like all the people at meditation clinics in Byron Bay sitting around in the Lotus Position, going Oooohhhmmmmmmm.

Now ever since it began, Sail Port Stephens has had that amazing drawcard of its location. For its 15th year (2023) it has had its most major shake up, ever. This is funny in a way, because it is all about location, location, location. Equally, the three classes of vessels that really formed the event have got so large that Sail Port Stephens has had to turn them away. Often up to 40 boats a year, as it turns out, because they just cannot house them.

So what do you do?

Well. You've got the location, so you break it down. You give the cruisers what they want, the windward-leeward fans their cup of tea, the off-the-beach (OTB) and sport boats/trailerables your complete focus, and you run the whole thing over three weeks. It means your resourcing can all be applied to the one group, and everyone can have the best time, without any cramping with berths for boats and importantly, the humans too! Because at the end of the day, these two things is one thing that Port Stephens does have a finite limit too.

So well done to Paul O'Rourke and the team, which means it is time to bring him on. "Yes. It's a big milestone. Time flies. A couple of our volunteers have done all of them, like Bruce Gosper, and our Principal Race Officer, Denis Thomson. Many others have made it to the magic ten, as well. Several skippers, such as Greg Newton, Peter Lewis, Derek Sheppard, and Matt Bosner have also attended them all, and with their different boats over time, too. I don't believe any one boat has done them all, under any ownership, interestingly."

One of the biggest things about SPS has always been the inclusion of so many different varieties, which is simply fantastic. Logistically it makes it very difficult because you're running different courses, but it's great to have everything from production boats to carbon flyers, big to small, cruisers to sports and trailerables, as well as OTB.

O'Rourke added, "There are two things with the location. One is our proximity to Sydney. That's a huge plus. And then two, there's the natural beauty of the destination, having the inshore and offshore islands. It is quite stunning when you're on the back of Cabbage Tree, you could be anywhere in the Pacific. It is just beautiful."

I have a massive soft spot for it myself, and the fact that there are a couple of little navigational hazards around the place just adds to the interest. "It does, keeps people on their toes. And I think another aspect, with all those sand bars, is learning to sail in current. Not a lot of people in Sydney sail with strong current. So, it's a good challenge for people as well. How to play the tides and the different currents around the banks and around the headlands."

Where there's smoke...

One fleet expecting a big 2023 is the village of the TeePees, with a record twelve-boat fleet being anticipated.

"We worked hard with the South Australian and Victorian boats to make sure they can all come next year. This was probably the initiator of some of the structural change we have created for the event. They wanted to come and all be together (at the Anchorage). I was like, well, there's just no way. You know, we're so heavily booked, we just can't do it. So then, I suggested to them, well what about if you came the following weekend? And they went 'perfect'. Suits us fine. I said, 'you got the whole place to yourself then'."

"Then I said, well, if we move all our windward-leeward and all our IRC racing to the same weekend, that will then free up berthing for all the cruising boats the first week, with then more berthing for the windward-leeward racing IRC boats the following weekend at d'Albora Marina, and also Soldiers Point," added O'Rourke.

"Last year we would've turned away 40 boats for Sail Port Stephens. I guess one of the frustrations with that revolves around how many boats just sit there, as some don't race midweek because they are only there to do the windward-leewards later in the week, and some don't race windward-leewards because they're only there to do the cruising events, earlier in the week. So by separating them out for 2023 it means that we can accommodate a lot more vessels for both events."

"So from 24th to 29th of April, we're doing the passage series for the cruising craft. We'll have a PHS Trophy and an ORC Club Trophy."

The market will be happy with this news, for the latter is far easier for people to get their head around. O'Rourke added, "I have done all of the East Coast regattas, and the handicapping for PHS is so difficult, because you've got such a short time period, four to five races, and they come from such diverse clubs. It's really hard to get it right. Then also with such a short series, you have drastic changes in your handicapping, and that people struggle to understand that because it doesn't happen at their club."

"This is why we're offering the ORC trophy. I think most people will move towards ORC. I know Pittwater and Middle Harbour have adopted it quite strongly. It just takes away all that argument. That's your handicap, so sail to it, and do your best. Then for those that don't race that often, or not that worried about the result, they've got the PHS there, and they can leave their bimini up if they want to, and they'll get big adjustments to their handicaps, but they'll all get a result."

"The first five days of SPS 2023 is all passage racing (inside first and outside later on, all starting and finishing of the breakwater). So it'll be five passage races in the series. You do either PHS or ORC. Then we come back a week later (5th to 7th of May), which is when we only do the offshore windward-leeward six race series off the Committee Boat (with one race constituting a series BTW, so bring your best game from the get go). This will be the TP52s doing the Gold Cup, and we also have the IRC NSW State titles."

"We've also introduced an ORC club division for the older style boats that still like to do windward-leeward style racing. So like with my boat, Mako, which is a Sydney 40, we'll definitely do ORC club, as we just don't rate under IRC any more, but we love being out on a good windward-leeward course, with 20 boats at the top mark. It's great fun, and we love the sailing, so this will be great."

"The third component is what we're calling the Bay Series, to be sailed out of the Bay Sailing Centre at Soldiers Point in front of the somewhat salubrious Bannisters. This is over 19th to 21st of May, for the sportsboats, trailerables, and our OTB classes, which have grown quite a bit in the last couple years, and a windsurfer division."

So you end up really feeling that this is somewhat of a hat trick for the Sail Port Stephens organisers. Immediately on hearing that, O'Rourke simply added, "I think there should be a special trophy for anybody that sails all twelve days."

I pondered if said trophy should be a case of red, and O'Rourke responded with, "I haven't worked it out yet. Maybe. Perhaps a jug of rum. It'd be a pretty solid effort." Well yes, you'd definitely be keen...

Reflecting on the overall timing and the event's esteemed history, O'Rourke said, "We started in the school holidays, and that was important originally, but now we found it's better if we stay out the school holidays, as the price of accommodation, and the price of berthing, is so much more affordable for the competitors."

If it ain't broke...

Not moving too far from the successful formula, however, "We've kept the lay day in the first instalment, and we've also kept the big party on the Wednesday night, just finishing them on the Saturday, as we had a lot of feedback about finishing then, so as to allow people to have a good night Saturday night, then worry about getting their boats home on the Sunday."

I think the format change is going to work, and it would seem the initial feedback is very positive. Now the team will have to get set for the endurance of running a long event, but history would say they not only have the experience, but a loyal following who look forward to the superb event. Of course now, even more people can take part.

"In the first week you won't notice any difference. There's the welcome party on the Monday, which is sponsored by Brix Rum. We've got d'Albora doing their photo booth night on the Tuesday, and the Sons of Beaches is the big band on the Wednesday, and Pantaenius do their big barbecue on the Friday.

"Then we're going to try and do it like a signature band, big community event in the forecourt on the Saturday."

"We rise up again the following weekend, with Friday welcome drinks, Saturday party time, then Sunday presentation. After which we pack up everything, all the banners, all the signage, and everything, then set up in front of the Bay Sailing Centre. We're going to shut Seaview Crescent, put up the marquee and put on our third weekend of big parties."

Anyone left wondering probably needs to reflect that all of this is actually going to open up the famous SPS social side, not limit it. O'Rourke smiled and said, "I've been training all these years exactly for this!"

Sailing all three regattas might be tough, but attending all the activities might be tougher. "Yes. I think we might have to make a new trophy. A hall of famer trophy, or something."

GO HERE TO ENTER. Naturally, something like this does not happen without assistance, and the key ones here are Destination New South Wales, Pantaenius Insurance, Brix, D'Albora Marina, The Anchorage Marina, Port Stephens Accommodation, and Rolly Tasker Sails who give a good selection of gifts for our daily prizes.

Pantaenius Sail and Motor Yacht Insurance will rack up their 11th year of involvement in 2023. Many of the team often sail at the event, and on the BBQ night you will find four or five of the team getting the food organised and distributed to keen sailors. Of course there is also their RIB, additional media support, prizes and many other contributions that demonstrate their commitment to our sport and the event.

OK. There it is. There is so much more on the group's websites for you. Simply use the search field, or 'edition' pull-down menu up the top on the right of the masthead to find it all. Please enjoy your yachting, stay safe, and thanks for tuning into

John Curnow
Editor, Sail World AUS

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