By Neena Bhandari
It is seldom that an argument triggers a boat race, but that is precisely what happened in December 1966.
Two Goolwa greats, the late Bill Appleby and the late Bill Ballard, set sail on their yachts from Goolwa to Milang to settle their argument about who had the fastest boat.
Their yachts almost matched, but soon other boats joined in the competition. The numbers soared to 584 yachts in 1986, making it the largest individual freshwater classic yacht race in the country.
Each year during the Australia Day long weekend an amazing array of boats arrive in the historic river port town of Milang, the starting point of the race now.
“The direction was reversed from Goolwa to Milang in 1976 due to safety concerns. Unlike the channels of the Lower Murray River, Lake Alexandrina can be shallow at places with short, sharp chop, which makes sailing challenging”, says Commodore Locky McLaren of the Goolwa Regatta Yacht Club, which has been running the race since 1974.
About 200 boats, ranging from 8m trailer yachts to vintage river boats, multihulls and catamarans to small 4m dinghies, participated in nine divisions in 2016’s race.
Commodore McLaren says, “In recent years, there has been a growing interest in sports boats. In 2015, we had 30 sports boats with many young crew on board”.
Local hotels and clubs unite to raise a toast to this much awaited annual event with a grand party on the eve of the race. Yachts are anchored among reeds near the Milang jetty and sailors are ferried onshore on dinghies and rubber ducks operating as water taxis.
It is considered a demanding race for sailors as winds can be as light as five knots, increasing to 25 knots during the afternoon and temperatures range from 30 to 36C.
While most yacht races are sailed offshore, people have the opportunity to witness this race in close proximity from various vantage points onshore or from their own boats. Locals and visitors assemble with a picnic spread to cheer along the 50km course, dotted with low lying cliffs, farmlands and riverbanks.
“This close-up spectacle of yachts is what makes it so special. At Point Sturt onlookers can get a 360-degree view of the entire fleet of yachts with their colourful spinnakers as they sail down the Murray river, past Clayton, on to Goolwa for the finish”, says Commodore McLaren.
The race marks a spectacular finale to The Marina Hindmarsh Island Goolwa Regatta Week.