Race Day on Sydney Harbour

Dingy Race at Sydney Front copy
This week, with the weather being rather dreary in Sydney, the Past Present decided to cheer things up with a lively shot of Sydney Harbour. The image above, from a postcard dating to circa 1910, shows one of Sydneysiders favoured pastimes, getting out and about on the water. What’s more, it shows the competitive side of the sport, with people gathered to partake in or watch a race.
Recreational sailing in Sydney was very much a product of the nature of Sydney itself. Sydney was a seaport and early colonists settled along and around the coastline. Where in England sailing and racing of boats was very much an activity enjoyed by the upper classes, in Sydney it was almost an extension of many peoples daily work. In the early history of racing on Sydney Harbour captains of visiting ships would organise races between their crews using the smaller ships which were carried on their decks. In fact some ships even carried a specific, modified racing boat! Soon enough these races were becoming a public event. These regattas were even seen as an appropriate celebration of holidays. Of course they were also accompanied by plenty of drinking and gambling. As early as 1828 an annual ‘Anniversary Regatta’ was organised to celebrate the foundation day of the colony.
Many races in the later 19th century and into the 20th century featured the ‘great Sydney type’ boat as it was known – an open boat with as much sail as could possibly be crammed into the space allowed. These boats developed from the working boats of Sydney Harbour – skiffs, fishing boats, ships boats and the like. They had no keel to stop them capsizing so they also required large crews who acted as a live ballast to stabilise the boat. Such boats were relatively inexpensive, making them popular with the working classes and in the working class suburbs such as Balmain and Pyrmont. The racing of these open boats was also very popular as a spectator sport as these races offered an element of spectacle missing from yacht races. Mishaps such as capsizing were not uncommon. By the 1930s open boat racing, like that shown in the image above, had become an incredibly popular Sydney pastime with thousands of spectators following the weekly race, some from aboard special steamers which were hired by the various open boat clubs. The crews of these boats were often professional crews and many played rugby in the winter months when sailing was less popular.

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