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RAWHITI on Sydney Harbour  in the early 1920s, racing downwind under maximum sail area.

The Sayonara Cup

The Sayonara Cup was the premier trophy for Australian yachting from 1903 to 1962. Modeled on the America’s Cup Deed of Gift, it was established as a match-racing event between large yachts representing NSW and Victoria, and gradually evolved to accommodate changes in yacht types and clubs. Despite periods when no events took place, it remained well-known to the general public. The experience gained by Australian yachtsman racing for the trophy allowed them to consider challenging for the America’s Cup in the late 1950s when that event adopted the International Twelve Metre class, and the Sayonara Cup was then being sailed by the slightly smaller International Eight Metre Class yachts. The Sayonara Cup had begun as the successor to the Inter-Colonial events that had been held up until Federation in 1901.

Yachting in Australia and New Zealand became well established through the second half of the 1800s. The six states and New Zealand werethen still separate colonies, and there was a steady interchange and trade between the population of each colony. Sporting rivalry was part of this, but partially limited by the means of travel compared to modern times. Yachting was largely the preserve of the well-off, but racing was a major event the public could watch from the foreshores of most major cities, and it was keenly followed in the press. Inter-Colonial racing, largely competed for between the eastern states and New Zealand was the pinnacle, and a modest number of regattas were held from the 1870s onwards. These contests reached a zenith during the prosperous 1880’s when cash prizes equal to six figure sums in modern terms and valuable trophies were awarded as prizes. Public interest was extremely keen and crowds lined the foreshores to watch the large yachts race. This was the period of ERA, VOLUNTEER, WAITANGI, ASSEGAI, IOLANTHE, IDUNA, yachts up to 25 metres long with massive gaff cutter rigs, and the biggest yachts in the southern hemisphere.

In 1901, the Australian colonies became states federated under the Commonwealth of Australia while New Zealand remained separate. Shortly after, the long reign of Queen Victoria ended, and a period of mourning ensued, cancelling many public events out of respect. Ideas for an interstate yachting event remained unfulfilled until 1903, when Alfred Gollin issued a challenge from the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria (RYCV), to the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron (RSYS) and the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club (RPAYC) for an event between the two states. Gollin had every right to feel confident with his challenge because his newly purchased gaff-cutter, SAYONARA had proved to be easily the fastest yacht seen in Victoria during the six years since launching in 1897. It was designed by the brilliant Scottish naval architect, William Fife, and built to the highest standards in Adelaide by master boat builder Alex McFarlane. SAYONARA was reputed to be the first yacht in Australia with lightweight hollow spars imported from the USA and carried English-made sails. Although conceived as a cruising yawl, racing under a cutter rig it became the pinnacle of Australian yachting and matched the highest international standards as well. Gollin matched his confidence in SAYONARA by donating a stout-looking silver trophy worth 100 Guineas as the prize.

To meet SAYONARA the two Sydney clubs combined crews and nominated a colonial flier, the New Zealand Chas Bailey designed and built gaff-cutter BONA. It had been unbeatable in Sydney waters by all the local yachts, but had lost to the New Zealand Logan designed RAINBOW when that yacht came to Sydney for a month in 1900.

Racing took place under the Linear Rule that had been adopted in the late 1890s, however neither yacht had been designed with that rule in mind. BONA had a time allowance of 8.9 seconds per nautical and the crew was confident this gave it every chance of beating the larger SAYONARA.

SAYONARA sailed to Sydney for the challenge and the three-race contest was sailed in open water off Sydney heads. SAYONARA won the first race, BONA the second then SAYONARA secured the trophy with a win in the final race. It had clearly been the better yacht.

After returning to Melbourne Gollin offered the trophy in perpetuity for interstate yachting challenge matches between NSW and Victoria. The deed of gift stipulated that the contest should be a match race on three consecutive days (excluding Sundays) between yachts registered to RYCV and either or both RSYS and RPAYC. The first and third races were stipulated as a 10nm windward-return and the second race an equilateral triangular course of 21nm. Yachts were to be 50ft or less on the load waterline (LWL) and were to sail to the contest ‘on their own bottoms’. These details were all quite similar to the famous America’s Cup, and its curious to note that both trophies were valued at 100 Guineas.

The Sydney clubs realized that beating SAYONARA was a formidable task and turned to New Zealand’s Logan brothers for the yacht that could win the challenge. Ex –pat Auckland dentist Harry Pittar now living in Sydney had first come to Australia with RAINBOW. He commissioned Logan Bros to build a bigger version, designed to the Linear Rule, The 38 ft Linear rater RAWHITI was sailed across the Tasman arriving in 1906. Pittar only raced it briefly and without any major success, then sold it to Charles Brockhoff from RPAYC.

Brockhoff and his crew soon had RAWHITI sailing to its potential, and the yacht voyaged to Melbourne with a crew full of confidence. Racing for the La Carabine Cup in a lead up to the series of races, it dominated SAYONARA who then retired early. Their experiment in taking out the internal ballast had been a failure, and they returned the yacht to its previous configuration and trim. An outing just prior to the series confirmed this was the correct decision, and although it was bigger and gave a time allowance to RAWHITI, the Victorians now felt they could retain the trophy. SAYONARA took the first two races comfortably, sailed in different conditions, and the trophy stayed with the RYCV.

To win the Sayonara Cup the Sydney clubs realized that the newly introduced international Linear Rating rule would give their smaller but astonishingly fast Fife designed AWANUI a significant handicap advantage over SAYONARA. However, the RYCV declined to accept this challenge under these rules and the challenge by AWANUI was withdrawn. The RYCV accepted a new challenge in 1909 on even terms from THELMA, a similar sized yacht to SAYONARA.

For the designer of THELMA, Sydney’s highly respected Walter Reeks, this match was to be a crucial test of his work. In 1889 Reeks had returned from a fact-finding visit to the New York Yacht Club and the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes where he closely inspected the top racing yachts with a view to designing an Australian challenger for the America’s Cup. Reports indicate he prepared the plans for his yacht, but the challenge did not proceed, and it was never revealed what form his 90 ft waterline vessel would have been.

However, quite soon after he designed the 42ft LWL 15 rater THELMA, and it has often been thought this elegant yacht with superb wineglass sections embodied his thinking for a gaff-cutter challenger. THELMA showed excellent when he lowered the ballast keel a year or so after launching, then gave it further draft and ballast with another change. It became the champion yacht on Sydney Harbour throughout the 1890s until BONA came across.

THELMA had a significantly longer waterline length of 42ft LWL compared to SAYONARA’s 38ft LWL. Prior to the challenge, Reeks completely refitted and tuned the 18 year old THELMA, owned by Charles Lloyd Jones. He hoped to repeat the previous success of his yachts during earlier Inter-Colonial races when ERA had won in 1887, and IDUNA and VOLUNTEER had shown similar speed. In the first race in fresh conditions with Reeks at the helm, the waterline advantage saw THELMA overtake SAYONARA on the run and finish 45 seconds ahead. The second race was held in SAYONARA’S preferred light weather conditions and it marched out to a handsome 9min 57sec victory. The final race drew enormous interest and in the fresh conditions the boats were evenly matched on the windward leg. THELMA appeared to be ahead, but the mark was not where they anticipated it to be, and they over stood allowing SAYONARA to take the lead which it held on the run, sailed with an abating breeze. This was the closest series so far, and the Sydney clubs remained determined to win the trophy.

The handicap issue continued between the clubs and a new challenge from Walter Marks CULWULLA III, the renamed AWANUI, was finally accepted in 1910. However, it was agreed that in the case of a disputed result the respective yacht measurements and race times would be sent to England’s Yacht Racing Association (YRA) for final arbitration. During these races sailed under the new International Rule SAYONARA, nominally rated as a 12-metre, and the 10-metre rated CULWULLA III, each had one clear victory. However, the first race was close with SAYONARA winning narrowly across the line so the outcome hinged on the decision of the YRA with regards to the use of the handicap assigned to smaller CULWULLA. The YRA eventually awarded the trophy to CULWULLA after a six-month delay. Soon after this result SAYONARA was sold to John Ross in Sydney leaving Melbourne without a yacht capable of matching SAYONARA’s performance.

World War I intervened and the Sayonara Cup stayed at the RSYS for eighteen years before the next contest in 1928. The energetic Joe White from RYCV commissioned Charles Peel of Williamstown to design and build a yacht that would win back the Sayonara Cup. He created a pole-masted gaff cutter, ACROSPIRE III, which sat long, low and lean in the water. The RSYS had two yachts ready to meet this serious contender, NORN and BRAND V, two of Australia’s first Bermudan-rigged yachts and they could extract a significant handicap advantage with either of these Eight Metre class yachts. Eventually NORN was chosen to defend, sailed by Alexis Albert and designed and built by J. Anker of Norway who is now best know for the International Dragon class. ACROSPIRE III finished the first race 4min 9sec ahead of NORN, but was beaten by 3min 3sec on handicap. The second race was sailed in changing winds and resulted in a comfortable win without handicap needed to the more simply rigged NORN. The Sayonara Cup stayed in Sydney, but the flag officers of both clubs realized the uncertainty of racing in flukey conditions and changed the next series to the best of five races. Before leaving Sydney, Joe White vowed to return with a new Bermudan-rigged contender.

Before White could return with his new challenger, the Melbourne based EUN-NA-MARA (formally CULWULLA III) was submitted by the RYCV for the 1929 contest. Like the ill-fated ACROSPIRE III, two formidable opponents stood before the challenger, the newly launched Fife eight metre, VANESSA, and a huge handicap differential. Previous Cup contests proved that Fife designed fast boats, but EUN-NA-MARA was not optimized for performance under the constraints of the International Yacht Measurement Rule whereas VANESSA was optimized to sail well for its size. The ensuing contest demonstrated the importance of maximum speed for a given rating when EUN-NA-MARA crossed the line for the first race 12min 23 sec ahead, only to loose by 1min 20sec on corrected time in this so called “match race”. VANESSA won the next two races in a more convincing fashion, however the yachts were clearly mismatched and there had been closer racing earlier among the three Eight Metre class yachts dueling for selection as the RSYS defender.

When Joe White returned in 1930 with his Peel designed Bermudan-rigged challenger, ACROSPIRE IV, it was again a big boat rating 9.31 metres. ACROSPIRE IV was no match for the well sailed VANESSA, which needed its considerable handicap advantage to claim victory in only one of its three straight victories. Undeterred, Joe White increased sail area and made other alterations to ACROSPIRE IV in an attempt to gain more speed for his next challenge in 1931. However only ACROSPIRE IV’s handicap increased and not its speed and the result against VANESSA was the same as their previous encounter.

The Victorians realised that the best way to win back the Cup was to buy the invincible VANESSA and the 1932 economic depression gave Lance Randerson of the RYCV the chance to buy VANESSA and challenge with the previous defender. The RSYS defender was NORN and for the first time the Victorians claimed the small, but important, handicap advantage. The races were the closest for many years with the series going down to the fifth race for the first time. VANESSA won three races, two after application of the handicap, and brought the Sayonara Cup back to Melbourne. Sydney had lost their most potent yacht and the trophy remained uncontested for nineteen years, held back also by World War II.

Eventually in 1951 a challenge for the Sayonara Cup came from the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania (RYCT) and the deed of gift was changed to accommodate the additional state and club. Preempting the adoption of metre boats for the America’s Cup races later in 1958, both contestants fielded yachts of the International Eight Metre Class. The RYCT chose ERICA J which was designed by B.J. Aas and built by Max Creese in Hobart in 1949. To defend the RYCV chose FRANCES a new Eight Metre launched in 1947. FRANCES was designed and built by one of RYCV’s long active members, Ernest O. Digby, who earlier designed and built INDEPENDENCE and DEFIANCE, but was otherwise the Overseer of Shipwrights at the Melbourne Harbor Trust. His design benefited from a close study of VANESSA and experience gained from the ACROSPIRE campaigns. However Digby instinctively knew what made a fast boat because he was a vastly experienced yachtsman.

Digby was one of the few owners to skipper his boat for the Sayonara Cup races. FRANCES was far superior on windward legs and sailing on Port Phillip dismissed the first challenge by ERICA J in 1951 3-0, making this the first successful defense of the Sayonara Cup by an Australian-designed yacht. The following year ERICA J returned to Port Phillip after fighting a severe Bass Strait storm for several days of her journey that resulted in a broken boom and spreader. After hasty repairs it won the first race when FRANCES broke a winch and spinnaker gear, but FRANCES prevailed to win the next three races, once again proving its superiority. A further challenge in 1953 saw a modified ERICA J challenge FRANCES on Port Phillip. The changes to ERICA J improved its windward performance and the crew carried the trophy off to Tasmania. The following year FRANCES raced ERICA J on Storm Bay. FRANCES won 3-1 and returned the Cup to Victoria becoming the first successful Australian-designed challenger as well as defender.

Two Eight metre challengers entered for the 1956 contest on Port Phillip and the deed of gift was changed again to allow a three-way contest. In addition to the now perennial ERICA J from Tasmania, personable RSYS identity Bill Northam had bought from England what was reputed to be the world’s fastest Eight Metre, the Fife designed SASKIA. Although built in 1934 by Fife at Fairlie, SASKIA’S racing trim was constantly improved to a standard not previously seen in Australia. It had a duralumin mast, stainless steel rod rigging and carried the finest suit of imported sails. SASKIA was well sailed to convincingly beat both FRANCES and ERICA J in the first two races. The brilliance of Ernest Digby’s seamanship helped FRANCES across the line first in the third race before SASKIA claimed its inevitable third and decisive victory. For the first time in 24 years the Sayonara Cup returned to Sydney.

The RSYS defense in 1956 was successful with SASKIA defeating both FRANCES and ERICA J. Again FRANCES managed to claim one race in its favored light conditions, showing the caliber of Digby’s sailing and design skills. Nevertheless, it was clear that SASKIA had the measure of the challengers from the southern states and no further challenge was made for six years. In 1962, the same year as Australia’s first challenge for the Americas Cup, SASKIA defended the Sayonara Cup in a clean sweep against BRIGITTE, the renamed FRANCES. This was that last time the Sayonara Cup, the great interstate challenge, was contested in big yachts.

In the intervening period, the America’s Cup had begun racing again in 1958 using the larger International Twelve Metre class yachts. Suddenly the step from Sayonara Cup to the America’s Cup didn’t seem so daunting. Members at the RSYS, under the leadership of Sir Frank Packer, notified their intention to challenge soon after the 1958 event. Bill Northam, owner and skipper of SASKIA, was sent to New York and with his easy manner convinced the NYYC that despite no pre-existing Australian 12 metre experience, an RSYS challenge would be better than the ill-fated British challenge of 1958. The challenge was eventually accepted and Northam and the SASKIA crew became heavily involved in GRETEL’s America’s Cup campaign. Australia had taken the next step, seeking to take on the world for yachting’s most treasured challenge the America’s Cup and the country never looked back.

The Sayonara Cup became dormant again with the focus on successive America’s Cup challenges, until the 1980s when it was contested in the one-design International Dragon class. Victorian, NSW and Tasmanian boats have challenged and won at different times, and in 2012 the event continues to be held, but no longer captures the wider public’s attention.