MANLY YACHT CLUB – A BRIEF HISTORY
Sailors know them as “black nor’easters”, a wild gusty wind that seems to come from nowhere on a hot Sydney summer day. As the sun heats the land, the air rises and is quickly replaced by a sea breeze racing in from the north east. Every November and December they come without warning, testing those on the harbour to the limit. Ross Wigney remembers being caught in one in the mid fifties. He was one of the first members of the Manly Yacht Club and was helping crew a small 14-foot timber skiff just off Dobroyd Point with a 250 square foot kite set. The new boat had just come up from Melbourne in kit form and the then 17 year old Ross had helped put it together and shape the mast from local timbers. Along with Peter Newell and skipper David Sleeman, the three lads wanted to push her to the limits. The sudden arrival of 40 knots of breeze behind her gave them their wish and they were really hiking.
The retractable keel was up and the new skiff was literally skipping across the water towards Balmoral. Who knows how fast they were going as the only instrument on board was a piece of wool to indicate the direction of the breeze. As they neared Grotto Point the trio wished they hadn’t been so gung ho. The 14 foot skiff lurched out of control on a wave and speared in, sending all aboard flying. The moulded ply hull offered some buoyancy, but it was up to the crew to try and right her and bail the skiff out. It was exhausting work but after nearly an hour the boat was again sailing, this time without the spinnaker, and Ross Wigney was hooked, like so many sailors who have come to Manly for generations.
There are few places in the world as challenging for a sailor as the waters off Manly. In the lead up to the Olympics, sailors from around the world were getting to know the area, as in September the screaming westerlies of spring could play havoc with the fleets of Tornados, Solings, 49ers and other Olympic class vessels. While these teams spent millions on their elite crews during the Olympics, and the area was hosting the top sailors in the world, the history of sailing in Manly has had a much more humble and accessible past.
The first Sailing and Rowing Club was founded in 1875. The original shed on East Esplanade is still there but the club was mainly for rowing and it wasn’t till after World War I that some serious sailors arrived in the area. The Manly Sailing Club was born around September 1922, when Lach Simms gathered a number of young sailors together in Verrall’s Boatshed (now Treharne’s Manly Boatshed). There were more 16 footers than any other class, so by 1926 they became the preferred class, and by 1928 the first clubhouse was built on the site of the present 16’Skiff Sailing Club on East Esplanade.
However a number of young sailors decided that they would prefer to sail 14-footers. The rules of the 16’ Club meant that the fourteens could not be sailed by anyone over 18, so in 1949 a number of young sailors led by Harry Pollard formed a breakaway group, who sailed initially in Little Manly. In 1950, the Manly 14 Foot Sailing Club was formed.
At the time, the Manly Daily reported some new boats, all built from the same moulds; were being stored at Farrell’s Boatshed at Little Manly. The report declared the boats looked well set up for the crews, but there would be a few vacant seats for interested sailing lads. The club’s inaugural meeting convened at the Sporting Union Rooms in September, and the first race was held on Saturday October 21st. The Manly Daily also reported that the first heat of the fourteen footers’ club championship was won by Reg Barron on his boat Van-Too after handling the fresh south-easterly wind well.
The fourteen footers were keen to expand and it was in the mid 1950’s that they had their chance. In May 1955, they applied to Manly Council for transfer of the lease of the boatshed of the Rowing and Sailing Club, claiming it wasn’t being used. The Mayor, however, ruled against the move and the Rowing and Sailing Club lived on. According to club secretary, David Sleeman, they had another chance when they heard Stuart’s Boatshed on East Esplanade was up for sale. They had little money between them but somehow by the next day, a deposit of 400 pounds was in the hands of the vendor and the Manly Yacht Club has a place to call home, although at the time it was called Manly 14 Foot Club. The problem was the building’s total cost was about one and a half thousand pounds and these young men had more enthusiasm than money.
However, as it turned out, sailing wasn’t their only skill, and they set about a fundraising drive. The old boatshed was very close to the beach, built on piers and rock and painted bright blue. It has since been demolished, although a few of the piers are still visible as you walk along the foreshore on East Esplanade. It was considered a perfect venue for a party so the members and their partners decided there was no better way to raise some money. Each month during the summer a big bash was held and, according to Yvonne Newell, they became so popular enough money was raised not only to pay off the debt but to finance renovations to the old shed. David Sleeman remembers the dance parties of the fifties and sixties as well, saying they became so popular they eventually had to hire two off-duty policemen to act as bouncers and keep the crowd under control. The whole Bay would come alive to the sound of rock and roll bands which played into the small hours of the morning – much to the despair of the more conservative, peace-loving neighbours. As the lads grew older, a few bucks’ nights were also held at the club with many of those involved apparently ending up in the water.
The revelry however signalled a new unexpected problem for the club. As the founding members, who were mostly in their twenties, married and had children, they had more pressing commitments. Membership declined and it was decided to introduce a new junior class. A quick study found the only available classes, Sabots and pelicans, were ‘cat-rigged’ and not considered an effective introduction to the light fast 14-footers with their jibs and spinnakers.
One of the committee members, Ralph Tobias, decided the Club would design its own class, and three weeks later the Manly Junior was born, being launched in September 1959. Since then, about 10,000 sailors have learned their skills on the small two-person dinghy. It has also provided the nursery for many of today’s national and international champions.
The Manly Junior’s distinctive snub nose was more a logistical necessity than a secret weapon. Ralph Tobias says in setting out the design, the key issue was storage as there was no room for the new dinghies in the racks of the boatshed. He decided the best way to store them was standing up, so it was the clearance of the ceiling (just over eight and a half feet) that ultimately determined the length of one of the most popular classes of boat in Australia. They also needed to be affordable, and deals were struck with local timber companies and sail makers to supply kits for 80 pounds, a far cry from the cost of MJs today.
Ian Perdriau believes he was the first kid ever to race one of the boats. He said that when he was about 12 he responded to an ad in the Manly Daily announcing the launch of the new boat on East Esplanade beach. He was among a crowd of people watching when he was picked out to go for a ride because of his size. Perdriau went on to race Manly Juniors for many years and now runs a very successful yacht restoration business at Woolich.
In the 14-foot class, Alan Rann became the club’s first Australian champion while many other members went on to compete in international classes with the world titles held in Manly during the sixties. During the sixties, it was realised that the gap between the Manly Junior and the 14-foot skiff was a major one which needed bridging. Harry Pollard re-rigged his old 14-foot “Rainbow” with about half as much sail, and it became the prototype for the Manly Graduate. Later development ran parallel with the NS14.
By the end of the sixties, there were 42 Manly Juniors and 20 Manly Graduates. A number of the skiff sailors were moving into small yachts, joining the small yacht fleet already sailing. In the 1964/65 season, the Manly Yacht Club was formed, and handicap yacht races were organised. First on the register was MYC1, “Leanne”, owned by Ray Douglas. In 1968/69, catamarans started sailing at MYC and the Multi-hull Division was born.
The new club’s success though didn’t always sit well with some of the established clubs and according to David Sleeman, tensions surfaced occasionally. In particular, he recalls an incident where one of the junior sailors came too close to the yacht of well known local Max Bennett. The young kid was then the subject of a torrent of abuse which, according to David, prompted the child’s father to launch an oar like a spear straight into the chest of Max Bennett, knocking him into the water. Disputes also arose over the use of marks in the harbour between the 14-foot and 14-foot skiff racers, but all these squabbles were nothing compared to a blow delivered by Mother Nature to the Manly area in 1974.
On May 25th, 1974, a south-easterly gale with 70mph winds coincided with two and a half metre tides, producing a huge surge which devastated the bay. All the boatsheds on East Esplanade were flooded to a metre or more for several hours. Twenty-three of the 46 boats in Manly Cove were lost. The Manly Promenade was wrecked; the seawall breached; and the Manly Baths damaged beyond repair. The bill for the damage to the waterfront was estimated at $1.25 million. The scene at the old blue wooden clubhouse was one of devastation – it seemed as though the whole club had been lifted off its foundations and dropped back again. The council used the occasion to reorganise the buildings along the waterfront and offered a deal to the Manly Yacht Club which resulted in its occupation of the present building (ex Manly Baths), and the demolition of the old building by the club members.
Club members were split over the decision to move, as the building was further from the beach and not as suitable to small skiffs. Many members, however, argued the club needed to expand and deeper water would allow yacht access. Also the old building was badly damaged and would have cost a good deal of money to repair. Those who wanted to move won the argument, and the present Club has slowly expanded and developed since then, from a very dilapidated state after the storm to its present condition. The lease on the historic building has recently been renewed by council, ensuring the club’s future for some time to come. Built in the early nineteen hundreds, the Manly Harbour Pool in this site was famous for the efforts of local hero swimmer “Boy” Charlton, who won a gold medal at the Paris Olympics when he was just 16. He broke the 400 metres record at Manly and attracted large crowds whenever he competed locally. After the storm, a new pool was built at Manly Vale, although the Manly Diggers’ Swimming Club still gathers for a few drinks at the Manly Yacht Club every Sunday.
We celebrated our fiftieth anniversary in 2000, when many old members of the Club came to visit and meet old friends, and relive the days of the wild black nor’easters and “gusty westerlies”, and the many parties held at our clubhouse. Today, improvements to the club are still being made, which make it a pleasant venue for weekend racing of yachts and dinghies; as well as our rapidly growing fleet of Sailability boats, giving disabled sailors the opportunity to enjoy the harbour, and a popular series of Friday night twilight races, when we are joined by boats from other clubs in handicap races and a meal on the deck afterwards. We are proud of the fact, also, that this club is run on a volunteer basis, with much of the work on improvements and the running of races, etc being done by club members.
(with acknowledgements to Michael Troy)