David Witt: To know him is to love him
Published on May 25th, 2022
Previously known as the Whitbread Round the World Race and Volvo Ocean Race, this multi-stage crewed global marathon has been attracting the most notable offshore sailors since 1973. Now called The Ocean Race, will the 14th edition continue this tradition when it gets underway January 15, 2023?
While everybody is somebody, their familiarity is slipping. As entrants for the next edition get revealed, it takes some Googling to learn who they are. That wasn’t the case with past skippers like Ken Read, Chris Nicholson, Frank Cammas, Ian Walker, and Mike Sanderson.
When the 2017-18 race got underway, probably the least well known skipper was David Witt, but if you followed Australian sailing, Witt was a household name and soon became a fan favorite as skipper of Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag. While they finished last overall, Witt was always good for sound bites (and one protest for misconduct).
His swashbuckling style was rooted in the 18ft Skiffs of his home in Sydney, Australia. Now 51 years of age, Frank Quealey of the Australian 18 Footers League tells the story of this polarizing sailor:
For 130 years 18 footer sailors have been regarded as talented larrikins who like to challenge the elements, go fast, win at all costs, have a drink, and place a bet on the races.
One of the modern-day champions who ‘ticks all these boxes’, and more, when it comes to 18ft skiff racing is the incredible David Witt.
There is a lot more to the David Witt story than many people know, and nobody should be fooled by the humorous, larrikin exterior he portrays. He is always there to win every time he goes racing.
Those who know him will have a variety of opinions on this larger-than-life character, but they will all agree, David Witt is a great sailor, with no fear of the elements, and a never-say-die attitude.
David’s association with the 18s goes back to October 1988 when he arrived as an unknown 17-year-old at the Australian 18 Footers League with an old Tia Maria hull which his father, Greg, bought for him and immediately established himself as a talented sailor. With his crew of Stephen Hay, 18, and David Ewings, 16, the trio were the youngest crew to ever sail an 18 footer at the time.
To everyone’s amazement, the team was one of only a few able to complete the course in a strong southerly wind on Sydney Harbour, and David quickly earned the reputation as being one of the best 18 footer skippers in Australia.
Witty recalls, “It was an interesting first race at Double Bay. The breeze was 30-35 knots from the south, we didn’t know anybody, and were told by the officials and other competitors not to go out. In their own words, we would keep the rescue boat too busy.
“That made us think briefly about what we were doing, then we just said f… it let’s go. When we arrived at the start line as the only boat upright and starter said go kids. On returning to the beach we were swamped by all the other competitions, all helping us carry the skiff out of the water.
“Gilly (Dave Ewings) and I were too young to enter the club so most of the fleet, led by the great Phil Barnett, brought beers out to the park to drink with us. At this time all three of us knew that 18ft skiffs would be a massive part of all our lives for years to come.”
Before joining the 18 footer ranks he won the 1986-87 Australian Junior Cherub Championship and was runner-up in the Australian Cherub Championship. The following season, after winning the NSW Cherub Championship, he was again runner-up in the Australian Championship.
The confident Witty wasn’t about to progress his way through other classes before taking on the big boys in the 18s and he proved his confidence was warranted when he finished third in the 1988-89 NSW Championship, then seventh in the 1989 World Championship.
David remembers, “My first 18 was sponsored by Aldenricks Timber, which was my family’s three-generation timber yard. I’m very proud that Aldenricks Timber also supplied timber towards the building of the League clubhouse, which can still be seen today, along with all timber in John Winning’s power boat, JBW. I personally hand-picked every single piece of timber for ‘Woodies’ boat which my father and I are still very proud of today.”
During his early 18s career, Dave sailed successfully at both the Australian 18 Footers League and with Grand Prix Sailing, and represented sponsors Ericsson, AAMI, Nokia, and Pace Express during the 1990s.
His greatest success during the 90s was the 1999 JJ Giltinan World Championship victory by Tim Robinson’s Rockport (UK) team. The win gave Dave the unusual record of being an Australian as part of the first Northern Hemisphere world 18 footer champion team.
Robinson recalled his association with Dave. “I first met Witty back in 1990. We got to know each other well during the Grand Prix Sailing days, and I’m sure that the initial idea to do the JJs came out of one of those post-race evenings.”
Robinson bought the Tyrrells Wines skiff from Sydney and set about planning for the 1999 JJs. “I must have asked Witty early in 1998 when he came over to the UK and he was quite influential, or should I say forceful, regarding our sail program.
“Of course, being Witty, we ended up with the biggest sails it was possible to build. They were very big and very flat, which meant we were super-fast in the breeze and really quite slow in the lighter winds. This meant winning the windier races by minutes but struggling in the lighter days.
“Witty obviously brought a lot to the team with his local knowledge and supreme confidence in all situations on the water. He was equally confident off the water and decided to place a bet on us to win the regatta.
“Initially, we had odds quoted to us of 14-1, which Witty and I decided was too good to miss out on.
“We approached the bookies with $1,000 for the win but got knocked back to a couple of hundred dollars when the bookie said he could not afford to lose that much. It was still a good payout and the evening went on until it was all gone.”
David agrees, “My greatest success in the class was wining the JJs on Rockport as well as winning the 1992-93 Grand Prix Sailing series with Julian Bethwaite on AAMI, and the State and National titles at the helm of Nokia.”
Dave had ten years with the Grand Prix Sailing 18 Footer circuit and is ‘famous’ for a video (click here) of his Nokia team’s sensational ride in more than 30 knots of wind on Auckland Harbour.
David became involved with many major sailing projects around the world, but has managed to fit a few more 18ft Skiff campaigns into a very busy international career.
His first serious return to the 18s came in the 2012-13 season when he sailed in the bow of the Jack Macartney-led Coopers-Rag & Famish Hotel team. ‘The Rag’ team had a race win and four other top-three placings in the 2013 Giltinan Championship, but had to settle for second place overall, just two points behind the winning Gotta Love It 7 team.
Over the next two seasons, David skippered Sydney City Marine and Smeg sponsored boats while he was in Australia working on the 100ft Ragamuffin campaign then, on Appliancesonline, finished third and fifth in the 2016 and 2017 JJs.
Aside from his 18ft Skiff achievements, David ran Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin 100 super maxi campaign for six years before the boat was purchased in 2015 by Hong Kong’s Seng Huang Lee, who David retained as skipper of the re-named SHK-Scallywag.
David has competed in 25 Sydney-Hobart races (all as skipper or primary helmsman), was skipper and campaign manager of SHK Scallywag in the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race, which he continues to do today, and numerous other international events.
During the 2017-2018 Volvo Ocean Race, David became only the second Australian skipper to win a leg of the race, dating back to 1973. Witty reminds us, “the other Aussie? Former 18ft skiff champion Chris Nicholson, which just goes to show the quality of the class.”
His roles often included that of project manager (as well as primary helmsman/skipper) on boats from 30ft to 100ft, and managing budgets from tens of thousands up to multi-million dollar projects.
Despite his incredible international career in the super maxi boats, the 18ft Skiffs still hold a special place in David’s thinking.
“During the last Volvo Ocean Race, I was asked at a press conference how I describe myself as a sailor. There was only one answer, and the answer will never change. I am an 18ft skiff sailor, always have been, always will be. It’s not just a class of boat, it’s a way of life, with the greatest history of any class in the world. I have never made a prouder statement.”
Along with his wife, Kim, David also runs Professional Yacht Services, which is a company that manages “anything that floats”.
Kim knows him better than anyone else, so what does she think about the irrepressible Witty?
“I totally have to agree when people say that David is a larger-than-life character as described by many, there is never a dull moment with lots of laughs and always fun to be had.
“On our recent trip to the USA we were out shopping and saw a hat that said, ‘That’s a terrible idea. I’m in’. We looked at each other and knew it was the perfect hat for David as most people would know he is quite cheeky and a little naughty. As they say, to know him is to love him!
“We have been very fortunate to have our own company which enables us to work together and spend most of the time doing the things we love like travel, explore and enjoy life. When we first met, I said to David I want to create a life where we don’t need a holiday from our job. Seems to be working out so far.
“We do make a good team and he has always said to me, ‘It’s you and me against the world Baby’. During the difficult times it is the support for each other that gets you through, although not always easy, together it feels like we are able to accomplish our hopes and dreams. As Killo would say, ‘The cream always rises to the top’.
“I am very proud of David and what he has accomplished with his sailing career, participating in the Volvo race as a Skipper with his own team was definitely a journey of massive highs and lows but overall it was a very humbling experience. Although he does say his favorite is still the 18ft Skiff.”
I met David Witt the day he arrived at the League in 1988 and immediately realized he was a great sailor. He soon convinced me he was an equally good person and nothing has changed over the 34 years I have known him.