Yacht Racing and Memories by Leigh Robinson

This article by Leigh Robinson first appeared in the 50th Anniversary edition of the Wanderer.

During the recent Sabre and 125 National Titles I was walking down the Esplanade looking at a rather thin, bearded, sun tanned, little fellow in his brightly coloured bermudian shorts with the skinny legs shuffling along towards me in a way familiar enough to jog my memory.

I asked myself the question as I studied his face as we closed on opposite tacks, “Is this the fellow I’ve been wondering about for so long?” As he was just passing me I said, “Cliff Gibson?” He turned, stood staring into my face for a full minute and said, “Leigh”, and then faltered for the want of a surname. “Cliff, you’ve done well enough”, was my reply and so passed a void of just over thirty years.

It was in the early fifties that I had last seen Cliff. My crew of those days was a Paynesville junior by the name of Michael Simpson just cutting his teeth into the sport that he has participated in as a cornpetitor and administrator ever since. Mike and his son both competed in the recent Sabre titles. Mike losing his money the day the Sister-in-Iaw put the $20.00 on the son. When “Bailer”, as I named him when he threw the only one we had over the side one day in the middle of a race, first met Cliff, it was in a set of circumstances at Metung regatta that he’s never forgotten.

In those early days we didn’t have the exonerating rules of today and after any infringement the offender usually withdrew from the race immediately, but on this particular day Cliff wouldn’t. We had buoy room on two occasions and he’d refused to give it and, as we approached the leeward mark we were in that situation again. I warned Cliff that if he didn’t give it this time, I’d go right through him. He didn’t and I did and that was the only time I’ve deliberately damaged another boat in my life. After the race, over a few coldies Cliff said to me, “Well Leigh, I tried to bluff you again, I looked for it, and I got it.” There were no hard feelings as we’d been competing against each other at various venues for a few years and were all good friends even though we did play at it hard, and that was not only on the water.

One thing has never changed in my yachting life. I still enjoy the re-run of the race with its post mortems just as much as the event itself. I’m sure most of us do as we evaluate our mistakes and quietly feel contented about the good moves we made in our efforts to be a winner .

During the recent Sabre series I was having a talk to Alex Proko as a fellow was wending has way through the boats towards us. Alex said “Do you know ‘Buster’ Hooper ?” as he was about to introduce me to him. “Leave this to me, Alex”, was my reply. I hadn’t seen Buster since he was a junior in Sabots at Albert Sailing Club during my last year there in 1957. Naturally Buster didn’t remember me but we had much to talk about – the members of those days and the club in general and Port Melbourne as well, as it was our neighbour, and many sailed at Port after leaving the Lake. My old Lake adversary and friend Dirn Langlands was its Commodore for many years. By the time Buster and his family called at home on their way back to Melbourne, a friendship had been established that will hold its place with all the others.

It was in 1947 as a first year apprentice shipwright that I was travelling on a train from the city to Port Melbourne to work overtime on a ship berthed there that I first met his father, Bill, who has the Jolly Roger Boat Shed and sailing school on Albert Park Lake. I was carrying my tool bag which took the interest of the chap sitting opposite me. He’d seen the adze in the pocket of the bag and this prompted him to ask me if I was a shipwright. By the time the train reached Middle Park station he’d found out that I came from Paynesville and I knew one of his old Navy buddies from the war. As he was closing the door, leaving the train he asked me to mention a red headed Japanese girl to this fellow the next time I saw him. The following Christmas at the Paynesville Regatta I passed the message on to Dave Bull who promptly replied, “Bloody Bill Hooper, where did you meet him?” It was then I found out who the chap in the train was and where he lived. A few years later I took a message back to Bill and that eventually started me sailing at Albert Sailing Club teaming up again with my first sailing mate and life long friend Bruce Stanway.

My sailing started at the age of seven when Dad would take me out in Jack langtree’s “Quest” as his bailer boy, armed with my jam tin. Quest was housed in a boatshed on Newlands Arm on the shore beneath “Ufracombe” then owned by Jack’s father-in-law Thomas McKnight Hamilton who in 1909 had the American designed “Boomerang” built by Mr. Peter Turney at his yard now known as the Paynesville Shipyard. His grandson Tom langtree, a former club member and longtime friend, is living at Ensay. The Mast and Yard of Boomerang are our Flagstaff and the Boom is the flag staff at’St Peters by the lake’ on Newlands Drive. Boomerang herself is Dave Staghtons motor Cruiser, one of the most used boats on the lakes, moored in the Mitchell River opposite “The Shack”. Quest was a fine little American designed day sailer with a sliding gunter rig and sailed many races at GLYC. One of the skippers was the late Sam Turner. The last I saw of Quest was laying alongside Peter Firends house at Lakes Entrance twenty years ago.

Other Meteors on the lakes were Jack Sutherlands “Aeolus”, built by his father Fred, sold to Ken Russell then to Dave Bull, who added a plank to her sheer and made a camp boat out of her and I think Dave then gave her away to a friend. Bob Foards “Chloe” was also built by Fred and is now owned by Bruce “Plugger” Carstairs of Lakes Entrance who last sailed her some twenty years ago when we reformed lakes Entrance Yacht Club. Bob Gelders’ “Licola” built by Norm Shepherd of Sale, named after Bob’s home town and presently is laying on the verandah of their holiday home at the “New Works”, Lakes Entrance adjacent to the site of the old Harbour Master’s residence and workshop.

The last of them is in my backyard with her mast the flagstaff at the Central Hotel lakes Entrance and it’s still fitted with the spike on top with it’s engraving “Alberts Anti Bird Shitter” manufactured and fitted by Alby Howlett former GLYC. member and owner skippers of “Four Winds” before our late longtime Secretary Gordon Potter. “Four Winds” was built of Spruce with a lovely Blackwood laid deck for Glenn Heath by another late member Paynesville Shipwright Charlie Neill.

In those pre-war days Dad also sailed a skiff called “Southerly” for Dr. Rutter of Alberton and the first “Idlealong” class boat built on the lakes. It was named “Idlealong” and was built at the Government Shipyard by Shipwright Osmond Day for Robert Geoffrey Russell the father of Ken Russell of Nicholson. If anyone ever writes a book on Yachts and Yachting of the Gippsland lakes, Ken has many fine photos of those early days taken by his father who was a keen photographer.

As children and non-swimmers were not allowed to sail competitively then, my membership never commenced until 1945 when the Club was reformed. Many are under the impression that the Club went into recession for the war but I believe it was disbanded because of the Infantile Paralysis epidemic of that time when the Government requested that people did not congregate in groups. Since those early days my sailing has improved but I’m still a twenty metre swimmer with a two metre sprint and it’s been enough to survive.

In 1948 I joined Mordialloc 12 Metre Sailing Club and crewed for one season before buying “Joyette” from Eric Montgomery. Ron Taylor, Bob Gardner, Eric and myself built three sharpies. Those boats were “Vagabond”, Stormy Weather” and “Joyette”. Eric wanted money for the engagement ring and I supplied it for him in partnership with Bon Guildford of Beaumaris who was my forward hand. I eventually bought Don out for another engagement ring. We raced Joyette at Mordialloc then went to Black Rock to compete with the champs. We sailed her for two seasons making the State team on both occasions but had no spare cash to go. In those days I rode the push bike from Chute Street Mordialloc to Black Rock Yacht Club and back every Saturday and Sunday with the sails as well and still found time to get to Mentone City Hall every Saturday night to dance to the best band in Melbourne – Kath Barnad’s with her son’s Len and Bob, top jazz musicians – great times.

One of the founders of the German designed sharpie class on Port Phillip was Mick Brooke, father to friend to many of us, Noel Brooke. Mick passed on to the big Regatta only a few months ago. “Joyette” was sold to Noel Laird of Royal Yacht Club of Victoria then went to Wagga Sailing Club where she was joined by GLYC. heavyweight “Rocket” formerly owned by the late Lindsay Crawford, husband of Mary and father of Lindsay Jr., our Vice Commodore, Lorna wife of Graeme now living at Longford and Hellen wife of former Commodore John Nash.

Another friendship renewed at the Sabre titles was with John Dick who sailed Millie Magic winning his division.(The one for the oldies.) John and I sailed and trained in the Victorian Yachting Council (VYC). 1956 Olympic Games Squad when my contract that I’d been waiting months on came through for me to go to Papua maintaining small craft for Australasian Petroleum Company. I tossed the coin and Papua won so I left the squad and went to Port Moresby working in and out of the Gulf of Papua down to the West Irian Border for the next fifteen months. I managed to sail all the time I was away at Port Moresby Aquatic Club and still keep contact with some of those chaps particularly my forward hand Brian Morgan a Master Mariner and former Shipwright of Brisbane.

At GLYC. we had many Easter Regattas that were attended by the tops of all classes from Melbourne. The best known today would be fellow Gwen 12 competitor and friend Mike Fletcher who with his crew Bruce “Stumpy” Keir were always hard to beat. Mike would have to be Australia’s top coach. Just after I started sailing in Melbourne we all went to Frankston for Easter then in the early fifties GLYC. came alive and I’m sure we had over 300 boats some regattas enjoyed by all. Some organising for those days and a credit to all involved. I remember Jack Porter stopped sailing to be part of it. To give you all an example of friendship created from yachting let me tell you this little story.

Jock sturrock, who had timber interests in Cann River at the time, used to have a beer with me going through Lakes Entrance. At the Club Hotel one day while having a couple of coldies a green trawler steaming up the lake came into sight through the clear glass doors. Jock asked me what boat it was and I replied “Gumleaf”. He then told me that a dinghy called “Gumleaf” in 1931 beat him for the Lord stonehaven Cup, the Cadet Dinghy Championship of Australia, when he was sailing a boat called “Monsoon” and the chap’s name was Jim Alderton. I replied “That’s him out there.” Jock asked me to arrange a meeting with him the next time through, which I did. Jim and Jock became firm friends going to the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Lord stonehaven Cup together and then Jock took Jim to the America’s Cup with him on two occasions if my memory serves me right.

The “Reverend” as Sheila Patrick used to refer to him in her articles on the characters that sailed the old eighteen footers on Sydney Harbour, sailed the “Dee Why” usually wearing his trade marks – a black bowler hat, bare chested, black dungarees and bare footed and God himself had to help anyone on Sydney Harbour when Jim was on Starboard.

Jim played a major part in helping one our our former juniors win the “Stonehaven” in 1969 at Hobart. Glenn Stanway, son of Barry and nephew of Bruce won the event in “Venom” sailing from Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron. I asked Jim to draw up a chart of the tidal flows in the Derwent Estuary for Glenn and he did this. Glenn told me years later that he still used the chart at lectures and various venues and couldn’t have won without it. Glenn went on to be a top class Flying Dutchman skipper competing in three world titles with his forward hand Collins Street Chiropractor, Ernie Lawrence. Ernie is sitting up front for Peter Gale in his present attempt to win the World Star Class title.

The stonehaven Cup was put in Glenn’s fathers care to be returned to Royal Melbourne and during this time it found its way to Lakes Entrance for Jim to have a look at. The old fellow didn’t know about it and when the case was opened on the deck of Gumleaf he couldn’t believe it. He cleaned his glasses to find the 1931 shield and when he did he said, “Look mate, there’s mine.” They kept it in a bloody glass case up on the wall and you weren’t allowed to touch it. Pretty moving stuff watching him re-live his memories that day with his body filled with pride and the tears running down his cheeks. It made the exercise well worthwhile. I still have the anchor that Jim used on the little “Gumleaf”. He gave it to me as a keep sake, and it was still playing its part at a National level last week holding one of the marks in place.

The Monsoon that sailed in our Club was Jocks fourteen footer designed and built by Charlie Peel of Acrospires and Jubilee fame and Uncle of all the Lakes Entrance Peels and father of Charlie – shipwright at Edne Shipway. Jim Alderton was also a friend of our Geoff Baker and last man to ask me about him was one of Toby Beatty’s friends a top ocean racing forward hand of earlier days named Bob Bull. The “Reverend” went to the “Big Regattal” not long back. Jock’s living in Southport these days. Yachting’s been so very kind to me having made friendships that have lasted as long as I can remember with people from all over Australia and beyond. It’s great to have them ring up or knock on the door whenever they’re down this way. I could ramble on forever about memories but enough is just enough.

Congratulations GLYC. on attaining your half century and congratulations also to all the dedicated and tireless workers in their day that made it all happen.