|Warm water welcome at Australia’s Airlie Beach Race Week|
Australia's east coast race scene is an exciting series of events that attracts the very best of our sailors as well as those dipping their toes into the competitive circuit for the first time. Typically, for owners and sailors the kick-off event going north is the Gold Coast Race from Sydney then on to Airlie Race Week followed by the high octane Hamilton Island Race Week with the more chilled-out Magnetic Island Race Week the grand finale before some relaxed cruising around the 74 Whitsunday Islands as the pre- Hobart events loomed.
The seven-day Airlie Race Week proved a light workout for the 110 race boats and 700 crew as the generally mild winds favoured the smaller yachts that set off from Abell Point Marina daily. The growing multihull scene, that of course has been boosted with the America's Cup using AC 72 catamarans, came to fight for the National Multihull Championships as well, so Pioneer Bay off Airlie Beach was a colourful place when spinnakers flew.
Across the 11 divisions there was plenty of glamorous yachts to enjoy, among them multiple Sydney-Hobart winner Bob Steel's TP 52 Quest that went on to take line honours in every race while being chased by fellow TP 52 Frantic with professional tactician Steve McConaghy and the 50 foot canting keeled Cookson 50 Victoire.
Victoire was skippered by plastic surgeon Daryl Hodgkinsons' and a crew of rookie sailors whose day job is also plastic surgery. But stealing Mr Steel's thunder came Commodore of the CYCA Howard Piggott with his Beneteau First 40 who scored podium handicap finishes in nearly every race to win the top IRC Division title, relegating the defending champion, the Swan 45 Tulip of Bernie Van'T Hof into second.
The 11 strong sports boat fleet was a mixed fleet that included a J70 (Junior) and some winged boats (foreground) that excelled on the reaches. Photo by Shirley Wodson.Peoples' regatta
The attraction for the vast majority of cruising yachts, trailer sailors and sports boats that come to its palm lined shores is the relaxed feel of Airlie Beach. The relatively open waters, long start lines and usually mild conditions is an ideal introduction to regatta racing says Tim Parker, sailing development officer at the Airlie Beach Sailing Club. Located on the headland at the south end of the main street the Club doesn't stand on ceremony and this informal approach includes welcoming the general public, a vastly different approach from southern clubs that can be imposing for the cruising sailor doing a first regatta.
Berthing space is plentiful as well at the large Abell Point Marina where we moored can cope with everything from the flotilla of sports boats that was in the pen next to us right up superyachts, including Race Week founder Don Algie's Storm 2, a Warwick 67 that was also berthed nearby. Alternatives include anchoring in the bay which was the quieter and cheaper option taken by many of the large multihulls, allowing them an easy run into the beach for the nightly parties at the Sailing Club.Non-spinnakers for newbies
An ideal introduction for those sailors new to regattas is the non-spinnaker cruising division which keeps the sail plan simple yet allows plenty tactics and competition. Inviting a local sailor aboard is a great way to gain some quick inside knowledge as we did when young Andy Pierce came on as our bowman but as a major backpacker destination there's plenty of willing newbie sailors to recruit while the sailing club website also runs a wanted-crew forum. Hitching a ride on one of the maxi yachts – Condor, Hammer or British Defender – owned by David Malloy is another great introduction to Airlie Race Week. "Sailing is no longer the exclusive domain of yachties; anyone can get involved and see what it's like on a real racing yacht and why we love it so much," said Malloy.
For navigators at Airlie Beach Race Week the challenges include capitalising on the tides and currents that run around the headlands of Pioneer Point to the south and Bluff Point north. Aboard our yacht, a brand new X-Yachts XP-38 cruiser-racer, as we beat south on the Monday I looked from the rail at what I thought was Pioneer Rocks, only for it to sink below the waters; one of several beautiful whales we would encounter during the week. Courses are a mix of passage races - which can take you through some of beautiful waterways between the inner Whitsunday Islands – and windward/leeward sprints which test crew work and sail handling.Fast multihulls and families
Lighter winds this year restricted the miles sailed to mostly around Pioneer Bay except for on the Saturday when a 15 knot south easterly breeze allowed race officer Ross Chisholm to send the fleet off on Course 7 around the Double Cones, then Armit Island for the bigger, faster boats and further along to Olden Island for the IRC Racing and OMR Multihulls. Among the 28 boat Championship multis the most eye-catching boat was Chris Williams new jet black Seacart 30 Morticia that out-sailed larger opposition to win every race, even managing to stay ahead in the very light airs and soft offshore northerly winds that had all the navigators dodging the tide. Capable of speeds of 18 knots in only 12 knot winds while reaching, the Marc Lombard designed Seacart 30 is available in folding club racer style or full carbon build. Prominent winners in the second multihull division was the family built and crewed 50-footer Fantasia of Andrew and Carolyn Stransky with able assistance from 14-year old daughter Mara. Having cruised and raced successfully in Asia for the last few seasons the Stransky family's light wind expertise shone clearly on the zephyrs of wind that they maximised well. "We really wanted to come back to Australia to test ourselves against some of these top boats but we only have the one kite," laughed Andrew.
Charter and stayOnshore with Jimmy Buffet
For some sailors at this year's event chartering a boat was the easiest option and a cost-effective way to race, so for sailors visiting from Asia there is plenty choices of both monohulls and multihulls from companies including Cumberland Yacht Charters, Queensland Yacht Charters and many more. Check out the www.airliebeach.com/bareboatcharters/welcome.html. After the regatta 74 islands await you nearby for world class cruising including he legendary Whitehaven Beach on the national park island of Whitsunday. Accommodation in Airlie Beach is plentiful. With quality hotels including the Airlie Beach Hotel, that I found comfortable, to a wide range of new self-catering apartments right down to back-packer budget accommodation. Night life is also plentiful with music filled venues and quality fish restaurants a speciality. Other attractions includes the free open air beach side swimming pool and wood surrounds for bushwalkers.
For sailors coming off the water principal sponsor Abell Point Marina had laid on a marquee with plenty of another sponsor's XXXX Gold beer to cool parched throats as crews swapped yarns. Ambling along the tranquil boardwalk that surrounds the shoreline we heard the main street ring out with live music as the Reef Festival got under way. Along the beach, opposite the Airlie Beach Hotel, artisan stores bustled with visitors. Back at the Sailing Club as the official ceremony finished and the winners stashed their Mount Gay rum prizes the Jimmy Buffet tribute band Montserrat belted out Margaritaville, Havana and of course Let's Get Drunk...and you know the rest of the words.
Next year the folk at Airlie are planning a particularly big bash for the their 25th anniversary so definitely one event I will be booking my ticket for, to escape our cold southern winter and receive that warm water welcome. Oh, I nearly forgot; best bring a loud shirt!