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Zephyr Sailors Abroad

Zephyr Sailors Abroad at Airlie Beach Race Week 2015

When merino gloves were required to operate the keypad of my pc back home, it became abundantly clear that the correct thing to do was to thaw out somewhere tropical in an enviroment that encompassed racing yachts, music, several great bars, and dancing girls. Accordingly I fed the afore-mentioned key words into my aging cerebal cortex, and the words “Airlie Race Week” flashed at the top of the list of tempting venues.

A quick email, which included two brief sailing resumes was sent to the Whitsunday Yacht Club, mine and one for my unsuspecting sailing college Mark Thomas. Within a few days, the vice-commodore flicked an email back, and we were soon match-made as crew on a local 39 footer called “Dehler Magic.” Tickets and accommodation were organised, then I rung Mark and told him he was off to Airlie Race Week....”I suppose I’d better come then !” was his surprised response.

Airlie beach is in a setting much like Mercury Bay, with a town the size of Whangamata, and a very pleasant downtown atmosphere with a plentiful selection of nice restaurants and bars. There’s two marinas and most of the accommodation is a few minutes walk to town and the marinas. It is well known as the hopping off point for countless backpackers who congregate there to socialize and explore the nearby Whitsunday Islands and Barrier Reef.

The race week is part of a series of feeder races that progress up the coast over a few months from as far away as Melbourne, and cumulate with Hamilton Island Race Week and the Magnetic Island race series. Some particularly blessed Australian yachties we met were doing the whole lot !

Airlie this year had 106 entries, divided into about 8 divisions. The weather is a much like our summer, and the breeze generally kicks in from the SE most days and varies from 10 to 25 knots, shifting to the left as the day goes by. Tide flow is significant, and at times it was crucial to short-tack legs to stay out of adverse current. Pioneer Bay is the main area out in front of Airlie beach, and the locals were correct in portraying it as a shifty wind zone. The outer area is blessed with world-class islands and yacht-racing geography.

Mark and I sailed with an all-Australian crew, and quickly settled into our positions as sail trimmers and tacticians. We were in the second keeler division and it became very clear from race one that we were in for very close racing. Accordingly we accepted some “rum” bets, in true Aussie fashion, on each race and the stage was set for some great battles. The “sheep-shaggers” as we were commonly referred to, became popular figures amongst the locals on and off the water, and we tried to stamp our mark at the start line every time much to the delight of our Aussie sailing mates.

The first 3 races were light and we consolidated in the top bunch in the biggest division in the regatta. Race 4 saw us shred our no. 1 headsail, and race 5 delivered a punchy 30 knots which flipped an 11 metre catamaran not far in front of us. The last race was down to the wire, and we worked some big shifts in Pioneer Bay to secure a 3rd place overall. Our Aussie sailing buddies were stoked and lots of man-hugs all round made us feel less conscious of our sheep shagger label.

The format and running of the races was faultless, despite the casual, tropical feel of the whole series. The Yacht club is in a prime spot overlooking the many moored yachts in Pioneer Bay, and the yacht club frontage featured a large open-sided beer and food tent with a different live band every night. We won all but one of our rum bets with the locals, made some awesome friends and got invited back more times than we could count for various other regattas on the Queensland coast.

Mark and I have had a glimpse of yachtie heaven. If you find yourself in merino gloves on your keypad next winter, you know what to do.

Geoff Collins

Event website and results here

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