Outrunning the virus on Sydney Harbor

Published on March 25th, 2020

The JJ Giltinan International Trophy is considered the world’s premier 18-foot skiff open championship, annually fought for on Sydney Harbor. These radical three-person trapeze craft provide spectators – both on the water and along the shore – with captivating action.

The success of past titleholders such as Australians Julian Bethwaite, Michael Coxon, Iain Murray, Ben Lexcen, Hugh Treharne have extended far beyond the region, with international champions such as American Howie Hamlin (USA) and Rob Greenhalgh (GBR) etching their name on the trophy.

But as 24 teams prepared for the 2020 JJ Giltinan on March 14-22, the coronavirus outbreak was steamrolling the planet. With headlines full of cancelled events, the JJ stood defiant, providing a third-straight win for the kiwi team of David McDiarmid, Matt Steven, and Brad Collins.

“There was a lot of relief (after claiming the title) because it had been a bit of an unnerving week with all the uncertainty,” said Steven. “Every day we didn’t know what was going to happen by the end of the day. It was a massive relief.

“They told us the night before [each day’s racing] they intended to race but they didn’t know if they were going to be closed down. They were quite punchy. They were the only thing running in the whole of Sydney, pretty much. We were always keen to stick it out unless we had no option but to come home.”

With Sydney Harbor typically full of spectators, there was a different vibe this year.

“Normally you are crowded by cruising and pleasure craft so it was quite nice, actually,” Steven said. “Basically it was an open race track. There was not much interference apart from the ferries, which gave us a bit of a false sense of security and in that second last race we got caught out twice, nearly quite badly, but we managed to deal with it.

“We pretty much had to go across the bow of a ferry or stop completely and wait for it to go past. We were close, probably 200m. If the ferry had tooted us that’s an instant disqualification. We put it on the line a little bit and it came good.”

Steven said his Honda Marine team would love to go for a fourth JJs title but didn’t know when, or where, that might be. They are unlikely to return to Sydney next year if it clashed with the America’s Cup on March 6-15, 2021.

The team have been petitioning for the event to be staged in Auckland for some time, to bring it in line with the historical approach when it was rotated around various venues on both sides of the Tasman, but to this point have come up against staunch opposition from organizers determined to see it remain in Sydney.

“There are a lot of Australian sailors pretty keen to come over during that America’s Cup time [and race a JJs here],” Steven said. “We have definitely made steps forward, there’s more talk about it.

“Whether or not it will be the JJs we are not sure but there are positive talks there will be an event in Auckland. We would love it to be the JJs to bring back the tradition and history of the event but we will see what happens.”

For now due to the Covid-19 outbreak, McDiarmid and his family face two weeks in self-isolation at their home and Steven and Collins, who share a flat together with three others, plan to jump on Steven’s family cruising boat for the next fortnight.

It won’t be the homecoming they might have imagined, when they could share their victory with family and friends, but the trio will be relieved to be home. And in the current climate, that is something to be cherished.

Source: Yachting New Zealand, Scuttlebutt

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