Eight Bells: Peter Briggs

Published on June 4th, 2022

Notable West Australian businessman and sailor Peter Briggs passed away May 31, 2022 at the age of 83.

Born in in February 1939 in the United Kingdom, just months before World War II broke out. He and his family survived the London Blitz and emigrated to Canada and then Australia after the war, seeking a new life away from warn-torn Europe.

Peter Briggs and his family moved to Perth when he was eight years old. He dropped out of school at the age of 15 because it was not for him. He began his career as a carpenter’s apprentice. When he was 16 years old, he met Robin Villiers. They got married in 1962 and remained united for the next 67 years.

With a passion for cars, he began racing at the ancient Caversham circuit in the Swan Valley with “the zest of youth,” as he put it. He was consistently at the front of the field when he bought Norm Beechey’s 500 horsepower Monaro. He won the Western Australian Touring Car Championship at Wanneroo Raceway in 1971.

He changed careers from property developer to mining entrepreneur after recovering from bankruptcy in 1972. Because of his success in the mining industry, he was able to pursue his passion for old automobiles. During his lifetime, he owned over 200 automobiles. He competed in rallies all over the world with his automobiles, winning the Historic Monte Carlo Rally twice with Robin as navigator.

Peter had a lifetime passion for sailing, and his yacht, Hitchhiker, with its unique red thumb on the spinnaker, gained him international acclaim and was a fixture on the local yachting scene for decades. He sailed with the Royal Perth Yacht Club and was a member of Australia’s Admirals Cup teams in 1981 and 1983, winning the World Two Ton Championships in Sardinia, Italy.

Below is a tribute by Barry Johnson, crew member on Hitchhiker from 1985 to 2017:

Peter began his sailing career at Royal Perth Yacht Club (RPYC) back in the mid 1970s when the Soling class was the “blue ribbon” Olympic class and the one class you had to be part of.

At that time there were many of Perth’s business leaders who were not only Soling owners but also RPYC members, another reason to sail the Soling.

Following a stint sailing as a crewmember on a Soling helmed by Noel Robins, Peter took an opportunity to purchase his own Soling Alexia owned by King Constantine of Greece. HRH had named his Soling after his daughter Alexia. Peter retained the name until the boat was sold.

In 1979, Peter and Noel arranged to meet with Skip Lissiman, as Skip had recently returned to Perth on a yacht competing in the Plymouth to Fremantle Ocean Race.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss and gather Skip’s thoughts and knowledge on what it would take to compete in the Admirals Cup, widely referred to as the ocean racing World Championship. Following that discussion, Peter commissioned renowned naval architect German Freres from Argentina to design a boat that Peter could campaign for the 1981 Admiral’s Cup.

Peter commissioned renowned Sydney boatbuilder Ken Beashel to build his new boat. The construction was undertaken in a Brookdale NSW factory. Beashel was to use exotic systems as they were referred to back then in the construction of the hull to which Kevlar over a Nomex core were the major components.

The design and construction program was now formalized, so next was to gather a competent crew and most importantly, gain selection in the Australian team.

Coming from Perth, situated on the West Coast of Australia, Peter was fully aware of the many hurdles that would be placed before him by the East Coasters, but that was not a matter that concerned Peter. Crew wise, Peter had many to choose from both locally, interstate, and overseas.

The next agenda item was a name for the new boat, “let’s call her Hitchhiker (Free Lift)” and so was born a “rockstar” of the international offshore racing circuit.

The 1981 Admiral’s Cup to be sailed in Cowes, UK was set down to commence late July with the Australian selection trials in March 1981. Hitchhiker was the top points scorer in the Australian trials and therefore was an automatic selection to the three boat Australian team.

Following the 1981 Admiral’s Cup, the boat was sailed to the Mediterranean where she competed in numerous local events with a makeshift crew before heading to Sardinia and the Two Ton Cup World Championship. Although a small boat under the ‘Two Ton IOR’ (International Offshore Rating), Hitchhiker performed well above its “weight” and was crowned 1981 World Two Ton Champion.

Hitchhiker returned to Australia and was campaigned with success for in the Southern Cross Cup (NSW) and Clipper Cup (Hawaii) later to be known as the Kenwood Cup.

The Clipper Cup was a brutal series with equipment breakages including a mast when Hitchhiker rolled in the Molokai Straight. Not to be deterred, the crew under the guidance of spar maker Michael “Zapper” Bell, set about rebuilding the mast and was able to compete in the following race.

On the boats return to Australia, Peter again sought Australian team selection for the 1983 Admiral’s Cup team to which he was again successful.

Following the 1983 Admiral’s Cup, Hitchhiker returned to Australia where Peter sent Hitchhiker to Hamilton Island for the inaugural Hamilton Island Race Week regatta where she was successful in being crowned the inaugural Hamilton Island Race Week champion.

After spending its early sailing years on the East Coast or overseas, Peter decided it was time for Hitchhiker to come home to Perth and compete locally again under the RPYC burgee. Not only did the boat return home to RPYC, but it saw the opportunity for many local yachties to be given the opportunity to gain experience of sailing on a high tech, high performance offshore racing yacht. Several local sailors who sailed on Hitchhiker went on to become professional yachtsmen on some of the world’s leading boats.

Peter continued with his pursuits of international offshore racing with the building of Hitchhiker II and the charter of Jameralla, which was renamed Hitchhiker III, but his first Hitchhiker always remained the favorite and remains in pristine racing condition by local sailor and close friend of the Briggs family – Samuel Ainsworth.

During Peter’s long sailing career, he also owned and sailed the Etchells Lemira and other boats, but his heart was always for Hitchhiker.

Peter was a great supporter of RPYC and never hesitated to promote the club and state whenever away at an event. Peter also was the generous sponsor of the Hitchhiker race day at RPYC, which in the later years was the Saturday before Closing Day.

Peter’s legacy to sailing will continue as R303 will be seen on the river and still racing under the RPYC flag.

Fair sailing Peter, keep the sheets eased as you sail on. Gone but not forgotten.

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