18ft skiff Worlds 1977 – a history making event

As the 2022 JJ Giltinan World 18ft skiff Championship is about to start on Sydney Harbour, it’s a good time to recall one of the most remarkable world 18ft skiff Championship regattas ever staged, since the original event on Sydney Harbour in January 1938, which was the one on Waitemata Harbour, Auckland in 1977. 

It was a closely fought five-race series with a dramatic finale, which introduced a new type of boat that changed the face of 18ft skiff racing and also introduced a rookie to the class, who would become a legend. 

The 17-team fleet with entries from New Zealand, NSW and Queensland in Australia, and Great Britain, also included the three most recent champions and two other skippers who would later become world champions. 

Prior to the six-boat NSW team leaving for Auckland, Dave Porter’s KB was a strong favourite to take the championship title back from defending champion Stephen Kulmar, who had a brand-new Miles Furniture skiff for the contest. 

David Griffith (Ansett Airlines), Jamie Wilmot (Nock & Kirbys) and John Winning (Travelodge NSW) were also strong contenders as was a rookie to the 18s fleet that year – Iain Murray, the reigning 12ft skiff Interdominion champion. 

Travelodge sailing straight to the camera, upwind, through chop.
John Winning’s Travelodge plows through the sea at the 1977 worlds. Pic – 18ft skiffs archive

Kulmar, Porter and Griffith had staged a brilliant contest the previous year, but Murray’s entry into the 18s, with the support of television’s ATN Channel 7, was expected to test the three experienced teams. 

After finishing fifth to Porter in the Australian Championship, Murray drastically altered his original design before the boats were shipped to Auckland. 

Twice Australian 16 footer champion Neville Buckley (Travelodge-Queensland) led another competitive Australian team while the local New Zealanders had three potential championship winners in their six-boat team.  These were 1974 champion Terry Mc Dell (Travelodge-New Zealand), Wayne Innes (Rank Xerox) and Russell Bowler, who was sailing his latest Benson & Hedges-sponsored skiff. 

This regatta was also historic as it was the first time in the championship’s history that a full British team, led by Peter Legrove, represented Gt Britain in a locally-chartered skiff (Sitmar Cruises), and became even more historical as it was also the final worlds regatta won in a timber hull. 

UK team on Sitmar Cruises on a kite reach.
First complete UK team to compete in a world 18 footer championship, in 1977. Pic – 18ft skiffs

With so many potential championship winners, the competition over the first four races resulted in four different winners, and going into the last race KB and Color 7 were level on 14 points, although KB held a two point advantage after each team discarded its worst performance in the four races of the regatta sailed to that point. 

If Color 7 won the final race, KB would need to finish second to become the 1977 champion. 

Conditions made sure that the scene was set for a wonderful finish to the regatta. The wind was 20-knots from the north and, according to David Porter, the seas were “huge”.  The course was going to be an extremely stiff test, and a battle for survival. 

All teams naturally elected to carry their small rigs, but the 14 miles North course was going to be an extremely stiff test, and a battle for survival. 

Ansett Airlines took an early lead and was well ahead in the race when her boom snapped.  Miles Furniture then took over, raced to a big lead, and was first across the finish line, only to learn later that the team had been disqualified for not answering a recall at the start. 

The critical point in the race, to determine the overall championship winner, came when the eight boats still left on the course reached the Rough Rock buoy for the last time. 

KB and Nock & Kirbys (windward leeward) sailing upwind.
Two NSW entries in the 1977 Worlds, KB and Nock & Kirbys, competing before the Worlds on Sydney Harbour. Pic – Bob Ross

KB rounded the buoy in a clear second place behind Miles Furniture. The fleet only had a two mile run across the harbour back to the finish off Orakei Wharf, so it appeared that the title would belong to KB. 

Color 7 was lying more than five minutes behind KB at Rough Rock which meant that Murray and his team had to do something different. 

Due to the conditions, all leading teams elected to head in a south-easterly direction before gybing and running to the finish line. 

Most did it well, but KB got carried a long way up to weather and when she finally managed to grannie, and head for the finish line, both Travelodge-Queensland and Rank Xerox had passed her. 

KB was in trouble, but worse was to follow for the team.  

In a ‘death-or-glory’ bid for victory, Murray’s Color 7 team made a daring decision to leave the fleet, hoist a small spinnaker and take a far more direct route than the leaders had taken across the heavy seas which were battering the competitors.  

It was a bold move but near North Head, the breeze dropped slightly.  Murray called for a spinnaker, and after a couple of anxious moments, the team got it set. 

While Porter and the others were cautiously making the last section of the course a dog-leg, Color 7 flew straight across the harbour to the finish line. 

Miles Furniture crossed the finish line only to be greeted by silence, and the crew were shocked as they didn’t realise that they had been disqualified for breaking the start, and not returning.  

The Color 7 team’s move paid off when it crossed Travelodge Queensland, which was leading at the time, and scored a narrow victory, while KB was relegated back to finish in fourth place. 

Iain Murray, Shane Corbett and Ian Souter were now the 1977 world 18ft skiff champions. 

Color 7 on a kite reach/run. Just one crew member on the trap.
Color 7’s team heads to the finish line and victory at the 1977 Worlds. Pic – Bob Ross

One New Zealand writer (at the time) said the decision had to be one of ‘Sydney or the bush’ when they set out for the run home.  It was a 1000-to-I chance that came off and onlookers were amazed at the manoeuvre. 

Porter said he knew about the Miles Furniture recall and wasn’t worrying about the defending champion team.  He was ‘cautiously’ sailing home, with Color 7 out of sight, and believing that only Travelodge-Queensland and New Zealand’s Rank Xerox were in KB’s vicinity. 

Russell Bowler’s Benson & Hedges finished in third place in the championship, behind the two top Australian skiffs, but was the boat which changed 18 footer racing forever. She was a very small, light, round-bilged hull which pioneered a polystyrene core sandwiched by a very thin fibreglass laminate construction. It was reportedly one-third lighter (with a hull weight of 125 lbs) than the New Zealand plywood boats.  

Murray was impressed with Benson & Hedges, but for the following season decided to use Nomex honeycomb paper as the core material, covered by Kevlar skins in a female mould. The hull weight was about 160 lbs, with all the fittings.  

In the five years following that memorable day in 1977, Iain Murray and his Color 7 team of Andrew Buckland, on the sheet, and Don Buckley in the bow, created an incredible record by winning every world, Australian and NSW Championship from the 1977-78 to 1981-82 seasons, inclusive. 

Color 7 crew group photo on land while in sailing gear.
Color 7 crew at 1977 worlds. Pic -Bob Ross

Immediately following the last race of the 2022 JJ Giltinan world 18 footer Championship regatta, Iain Murray will present the traditional blue ribbon to the winning team, while the rest of the fleet sails nearby. 

The 2022 JJ Giltinan Championship will be sailed on Sydney Harbour, from March 5-13.  

Race dates are: 

March                                   5                          Race 1, George Calligeros Trophy 

March                                   6                          Race 2, Cliff Monkhouse Memorial Trophy 

March                                   8                          Race 3, Alan Cole Memorial Trophy 

March                                   9                          Races 4 & 5, A.J. Reynolds Trophy 

March                                 10                          Races 6 & 7, Bill Miller Memorial Trophy 

March                                 12                          Race 8, Big Kite Memorial Trophy 

March                                 13                          Race 9 

Spectators can follow the racing on board the spectator ferry.  Booking online through the club’s website is essential: http://www.18footers.com.au/18-footers-sailing/spectator-ferry/  

For those unable to make it out onto the water, Sail Media’s live-as-it-happens broadcast team will be on Sydney Harbour to capture all the action.    

Live streaming is available at www.18footers.com by clicking on the ’18 Footers TV’ link.  

Follow all the club’s racing throughout the 2021-2022 Racing Season:  

Club Website     www.18footers.com  

Twitter     @18skiff  

Instagram     @18skiff  

Facebook     International 18Ft Skiff

By Frank Quealey/Australian 18 Footers League Ltd.

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