The Derwent River west of the Tasman Bridge is beautiful, with the sun low over the western hills. On the weekend of April 16/17 these sparkling waters were decorated by the sails of the largest fleet of colourful FireBug Dinghies ever assembled in Australia for an interstate regatta. Lindisfarne Sailing Club hosted seven sailors from Sydney's Concord Ryde Sailing Club to a friendly interclub event titled with ironic humour the Sydney Hobart FireBug Challenge.
Lindisfarne built their fleet of more than 20 boats as a community outreach programme. It aimed to offer the excitement of building and then sailing boats to families not engaged in the sailing community. The results speak for themselves, two graduates of the programme have qualified to represent Australia in the Laser 4.7 world championship in Germany. Most of the participants have continued either sailing FireBugs or higher performance craft.
Concord Ryde has a fleet of five ‘Bugs racing regularly with two more in build for next season. In this club the ‘Bug is seen as a highly capable boat for adults or graduates of the junior programmes. It has an excellent record for completing races even under testing conditions. In Sydney, where commercial storage for a dinghy can easily cost $200 per month, the Bug also meets the needs of people whose only other storage option is to stand their boat on its transom at the back of a unit’s parking space.
Bringing these two clubs and cultures together to match the skills of the Lindisfarne programme’s graduates against the experienced adults and juniors of Concord Ryde was the next logical step.
On the Saturday, the breeze was 8-12kts. Lindisfarne’s Oli Pritchard took the first two races convincingly, but CRSC’s Thom Hardman claimed the third. In the second race, Phil Sullivan achieved the highest place by an adult in the six race series, a third. International representative Max Gluskie, claimed two seconds and a fourth.
Sunday’s racing was delayed by lack of wind. The first of three races eventually started at 14:12. With winds of 5-8kts the advantage was clearly with the lighter LSC sailors also enjoying the benefit of familiar boats and local knowledge. Oli Pritchard took another first and a second, while Max Gluskie was first in the first race and second and fourth in the subsequent races. This did not stop 11 year old Luke Franklin CRSC’s youngest sailor stealing third position in the fifth and final races and thereby earning the prize for the most improved performance.
Overall, winner was LSC’s Oli Pritchard and second was international representative sailor Max Gluskie returning to his original mount from the Laser 4.7. Third place overall went to Thom Hardman from Concord Ryde. The first adult, in seventh place was CRSC’s Philip Sullivan.
On Saturday evening, the class convened the inaugural meeting of FireBug Dinghies Australia. A formal class association is essential for any class to be recognised by Yachting Australia. For the FireBugs this means the opportunity to send a team to Christchurch, New Zealand and thus elevating the South Island championship to an inter dominion championship. These little boats have some very big ideas.
Clubs run junior programmes to engage new generations of sailors. This activity is vital to their long term survival. How often does the participant’s engagement with the sport end at the conclusion of the programme? This is not a success. Anecdotal reports suggest that this is a widespread problem particularly in dinghy clubs.
At the other end of sailing careers, sailors who move from detached housing to units frequently lack the space to store a boat and find their sailing careers terminated prematurely. This is a tragedy for the sport because these are the very elders to whom the sailing community traditionally look to fill leadership positions in the grass roots clubs on which the sport depends.
In the jigsaw puzzle of problems and solutions, the FireBug has the potential to be a valuable contribution to the future of sailing and importantly re-energising the homebuilt dinghy in the racing fleets of modern dinghy clubs.
• The ‘Bug enables racing by combined adult and junior fleets. The opportunity for younger sailors to test their skills against veterans creates an environment which promotes rapid learning as well as the building of a community resulting in increased retention rates
• Boats built within a family have an emotional commitment which in turn keeps the family committed to the sport
• Amateur boatbuilding is a potent skill development activity. Because richer sports can reach out to children younger than those to whom we can offer sailing, powerful arguments are essential to encourage defection from those other sports. The offer of skills that amplify the competence and employability of a young person is, as far as I know, unique to the sport of building and sailing small boats.