• Major Tom at Festival of Sails. Photo Teri Dodds.
    Major Tom at Festival of Sails. Photo Teri Dodds.
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Farmers and sailing in the same sentence might seem paradoxical. Country vet Peter Knight appreciates the misconception but assures there’s a healthy scene on Victoria’s outback lakes, particularly when the rains come.

Knight’s Festival of Sails entry for his Thompson 7 sports boat called Major Tom, named after the astronaut from David Bowie’s song familiar to those from Knight’s generation, will be the crew’s second consecutive appearance on Geelong’s Corio Bay over the Australia day long weekend.

A couple of farming mates, a glazier and an agricultural engineer, Melbourne boat builder Scott Hearle, the skipper, and Knight have a busy season ahead. They will be proudly competing for Stawell Yacht Club, perched on the shores of Lake Fyans, at the foothills of the Victorian Grampian Ranges.

Large established Australian yacht clubs can boast membership typically in the thousands. Stawell Yacht Club’s membership is undergoing a healthy resurgence – up to nearly 30 members from a lowly 10 during the worst of the recent drought. 

Knight says “After 10 years of drought membership dropped way down, plus there weren’t any regattas and formal racing during a 15 year hiatus. Many of the other clubs around the area were sitting alongside dry lakes.”

Depth isn’t the only issue for Lake Fyans’ sailing community. Currently 85% full the lake spans 420 hectares or 4.2 kilometres but during the drought it shrunk to 22% full and exposed tree stumps that became a hazard and had to be marked with buoys.

“The main problem with sailing on the lake is you run out of room pretty quickly, especially with this monster,” says Knight. “For this reason we go further afield. This year’s Festival of Sails was our first regatta …they say you spend some time at the back of the field before you get going. We had a great time on the water though.”

There is a bonus to lake sailing; think Olympic gold medallists Nathan Outteridge, Iain Jensen and multiple world champion and VOR yachtsman Chris Nicholson. Freshwater sailing is shiftier than ocean and harbour sailing. “They say if you can lake sail you can sail anywhere” Knight reiterates.

So enthused is Knight’s Major Tom crew that they’ve signed up for the Victorian sports boat titles on the Melbourne Cup weekend at Williamstown, Melbourne. Then the sports boat nationals in Sydney in January, followed closely by the Festival of Sails at Royal Geelong Yacht Club, January 17-26.

So what’s the appeal of sports boat racing for a bunch of guys from the land? “We all like the speed and enjoy the close racing,” says Knight. “Some of us aren’t as young as we used to be; luckily the Thompson 7 is like skiff racing without getting wet and capsizing due to its high ballast ratio and 380 kilos on the keel, which keeps us upright.”

When they aren’t racing Major Tom the Victorian-designed one person Impulse dinghy keeps the crew sharp and regatta ready.

Darren Spence from the Australian Sports Boat Association anticipates a healthy 15 plus sports boats joining the wider fleet competing over the Australia Day long weekend, likely to reach close to the 300 boat mark.

Sports boat is just one class of racing Festival host, the Royal Geelong Yacht Club, offers. Boat owners can also nominate for the Rating Series (incorporating the Victorian AMS and IRC championships), performance racing, one-design classes, cruiser/racer, cruising (spinnaker and non-spinnaker) and the multihull series (OMR & EHC).

The multihulls open the show with their national titles and the bulk join the fray starting with the traditional Melbourne to Geelong passage race on Friday 23 January.

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- Lisa Ratcliff - Festival of Sails Media

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