David Witt — champion 18ft skiff sailor who ticks all the boxes

For 130 years 18 footer sailors have been regarded as talented larrikins who like to challenge the elements, go fast, win at all costs, have a drink and place a bet on the races. 

One of the modern-day champions who ‘ticks all these boxes’, and more, when it comes to 18ft skiff racing is the incredible David Witt. 

David in 2013.

There is a lot more to the David Witt story than many people know, and nobody should be fooled by the humorous, larrikin exterior he portrays.  He is always there to win every time he goes racing. 

Those who know him will have a variety of opinions on this larger-than-life character, but they will all agree, David Witt is a great sailor, with no fear of the elements, and a never-say-die attitude. 

A young David Witt.
A young David Witt.

David’s association with the 18s goes back to October 1988 when he arrived as an unknown 17-year-old at the Australian 18 Footers League with an old Tia Maria hull which his father, Greg, bought for him and immediately established himself as a talented sailor.  With his crew of Stephen Hay, 18, and David Ewings, 16, the trio were the youngest crew to ever sail an 18 footer at the time. 

To everyone’s amazement, the team was one of only a few able to complete the course in a strong southerly wind on Sydney Harbour, and David quickly earned the reputation as being one of the best 18 footer skippers in Australia. 

Witty recalls, “It was an interesting first race at Double Bay.  The breeze was 30-35 knots from the south, we didn’t know anybody, and were told by the officials and other competitors not to go out.  In their words, we would keep the rescue boat too busy.” 

“That made us think briefly about what we were doing, then we just said f… it let’s go.  When we arrived at the start line the only boat upright and starter said go kids.  On returning to the beach, we were swamped by all the other competitions, all helping us carry the skiff out of the water.” 

“Gilly (Dave Ewings) and I were too young to enter the club so most of the fleet, led by the great Phil Barnett, brought beers out to the park to drink with us. At this time all three of us knew that 18ft skiffs would be a massive part of all our lives for years to come.” 

Aldenricks Timbers sailing upwind.
Aldenricks Timbers, David’s first 18. Pic – Bob Ross image

Before joining the 18 footer ranks, he won the 1986-87 Australian Junior Cherub Championship and was runner-up in the Australian Cherub Championship. The following season, after winning the NSW Cherub Championship, he was again runner-up in the Australian Championship. 

The confident Witty wasn’t about to progress his way through other classes before taking on the big boys in the 18s and he proved his confidence was warranted when he finished third in the 1988-89 NSW Championship, then seventh in the 1989 World Championship. 

A group of people sitting on the side of a skiff in the boat park.
David Witt, on the left, in 1990.

David remembers, “My first 18 was sponsored by Aldenricks Timber, which was my family’s three-generation timber yard.  I’m very proud that Aldenricks Timber also supplied timber towards the building of the League clubhouse, which can still be seen today, along with all timber in John Winning’s power boat, JBW.  I personally hand-picked every single piece of timber for ‘Woodies’ boat which my father and I are still very proud of today.” 

During his early 18s career, Dave sailed successfully at both the Australian 18 Footers League and with Grand Prix Sailing, and represented sponsors Ericsson, AAMI, Nokia and Pace Express during the 1990s. 

Nokia on a kite reach.
Nokia. Pic – Bob Ross

His greatest success during the 90s was the 1999 JJ Giltinan World Championship victory by Tim Robinson’s Rockport (UK) team. The win gave Dave the unusual record of being an Australian as part of the first Northern Hemisphere world 18 footer champion team. 

Robinson recalled his association with Dave: “I first met Witty back in 1990. We got to know each other well during the Grand Prix Sailing days, and I’m sure that the initial idea to do the JJs came out of one of those post-race evenings.” 

Robinson bought the Tyrrells Wines skiff from Sydney and set about planning for the 1999 JJs. “I must have asked Witty early in 1998 when he came over to the UK and he was quite influential, or should I say forceful, regarding our sail program.

“Of course, being Witty, we ended up with the biggest sails it was possible to build. They were very big and very flat, which meant we were super-fast in the breeze and really quite slow in the lighter winds. This meant winning the windier races by minutes but struggling in the lighter days. 

“Witty obviously brought a lot to the team with his local knowledge and supreme confidence in all situations on the water.  He was equally confident off the water and decided to place a bet on us to win the regatta.”

“Initially, we had odds quoted to us of 14-1, which Witty and I decided was too good to miss out on. 

“We approached the bookies with $1,000 for the win but got knocked back to a couple of hundred dollars when the bookie said he could not afford to lose that much.  It was still a good payout, and the evening went on until it was all gone.”  

Sheet hand David Witt checks to see what the opposition is doing at the 1999 JJs
Sheet hand David Witt checks to see what the opposition is doing at the 1999 JJs.

David agrees, “My greatest success in the class was wining the JJs on Rockport as well as winning the 1992-93 Grand Prix Sailing series with Julian Bethwaite on AAMI, and the State and National titles at the helm of Nokia.”  

Dave had ten years with the Grand Prix Sailing 18 footer circuit and is ‘famous’ for a video of his Nokia team’s sensational ride in more than 30 knots of wind on Auckland Harbour. 

For anyone who hasn’t seen this video, it’s an absolute must see look: 

Team Nokia win in heavy wind.

David became involved with many major sailing projects around the world but has managed to fit a few more 18ft skiff campaigns into a very busy international career. 

His first serious return to the 18s came in the 2012-13 season when he sailed in the bow of the Jack Macartney-led Coopers-Rag & Famish Hotel team.  ‘The Rag’ team had a race win and four other top-three placings in the 2013 Giltinan Championship, but had to settle for second place overall, just two points behind the winning Gotta Love It 7 team. 

Over the next two seasons, David skippered Sydney City Marine and Smeg sponsored boats while he was in Australia working on the 100ft Ragamuffin campaign then, on Appliancesonline, finished third and fifth in the 2016 and 2017 JJs. 

Sydney City Marine on kite reach.
David drives Sydney City Marine hard in a 2014 nor’easter.

Aside from his 18ft skiff achievements, David ran Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin 100 super maxi campaign for six years before the boat was purchased in 2015 by Hong Kong’s Seng Huang Lee, who David retained as skipper of the re-named SHK-Scallywag. 

David has competed in 25 Sydney-Hobart races (all as skipper or primary helmsman), was skipper and campaign manager of SHK Scallywag in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, which he continues to do today, and numerous other international events.   

During the 2017-2018 Volvo Ocean Race, David became only the second Australian skipper to win a leg of the race, dating back to 1973.  Witty reminds us, “The other Aussie? Former 18ft skiff champion Chris Nicholson, which just goes to show the quality of the class.” 

His roles often included that of project manager (as well as primary helmsman/skipper) on boats from 30ft to 100ft and managing budgets from tens of thousands up to multi-million dollar projects. 

Despite his incredible international career in the super maxi boats, the 18ft Skiffs still hold a special place in David’s thinking. 

Smeg on kite reach with two boats behind them.
Smeg, with David Witt at the helm, leads the fleet to the bottom mark.

“During the last Volvo Ocean Race, I was asked at a press conference how I describe myself as a sailor.  There was only one answer, and the answer will never change. I am an 18ft skiff sailor, always have been, always will be. It’s not just a class of boat, it’s a way of life, with the greatest history of any class in the world. I have never made a prouder statement.” 

Along with his wife, Kim, David also runs Professional Yacht Services, which is a company that manages “anything that floats”. 

David, Kim and Abbey at the League clubhouse earlier this year.
David, Kim and Abbey at the League clubhouse earlier this year.

Kim knows him better than anyone else, so what does she think about the irrepressible Witty? 

“I totally have to agree when people say that David is a larger-than-life character as described by many, there is never a dull moment with lots of laughs and always fun to be had.  On our recent trip to the USA, we were out shopping and saw a hat that said, ‘That’s a terrible idea. I’m in’. We looked at each other and knew it was the perfect hat for David as most people would know he is quite cheeky and a little naughty. As they say, to know him is to love him!

“We have been very fortunate to have our own company which enables us to work together and spend most of the time doing the things we love like travel, explore and enjoy life. When we first met, I said to David I want to create a life where we don’t need a holiday from our job. Seems to be working out so far.

Appliancesonline on kite reach with another boat to windward.
David Witt drives Appliancesonline hard in a tough battle against Rag & Famish Hotel.

“We do make a good team and he has always said to me, “It’s you and me against the world Baby”.  During the difficult times it is the support for each other that gets you through, although not always easy, together it feels like we are able to accomplish our hopes and dreams.

“I am very proud of David and what he has accomplished with his sailing career, participating in the Volvo race as a Skipper with his own team was definitely a journey of massive highs and lows but overall, it was a very humbling experience.  Although he does say his favourite is still the 18ft skiff. 

David on the bow of Rag & Famish Hotel on kite reach.
David on the bow of Rag & Famish Hotel in the 2013 JJs.

“[Our daughter] Abbey really admires David also, just quietly she has nick named him the GOAT (greatest of all time).  Maybe that is up for discussion, but I don’t believe the journey is over just yet and I feel I am one lucky girl ready for the next adventure.” 

I met David Witt the day he arrived at the League in 1988 and immediately realised he was a great sailor.  He soon convinced me he was an equally good person, and nothing has changed over the 34 years I have known him.

By Frank Quealey/Australian 18 Footers League Ltd.

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