Darwin yachtsmen have played a pivotal role in developing the international yachting events scene in Australia. In 1973 they organised the first race to a foreign port, the Darwin to Dili Yacht Race. While this pioneering event attracted just six entries, it began a great tradition of sailing events departing Darwin for ports to our north.
The Darwin Dili Race of 1974 saw the fleet grow to 24, and 60 entries were received for the 1975 race. Sadly, the 1975 race had to be called off due to political unrest in East Timor. The skippers decided, instead, to race anti-clockwise around Bathurst and Melville Islands to the north of Darwin. This event, over 360 miles, proved to be a searching test of sailing and navigating skills. The Round the Islands Yacht Race continues to feature on Darwin’s offshore racing calendar.
A chance visit to Ambon in the Spice Islands by a Darwin radio technician in 1976 was the spark that led to the first Darwin to Ambon Yacht Race later that year. The 600 mile downwind race attracted six yachts in its inaugural year. For months afterwards, conversation amongst returning yachties was dominated by stories of “champagne sailing”, overwhelming hospitality, lovely friendly people, the scenic beauty, the cultural diversity, the food, oooh….. Clearly this would become an annual event not to be missed!
Entries steadily increased over the years as the event’s reputation spread and its tradition grew. Entrants began to come from further and further afield. International skippers began to use Ambon as a starting point to visit some of the 13,000 islands of the Indonesian Archipelago. Some sailed north to Manado and onto the Raja Muda Selangor Regatta in Malaysia. Others headed southwest to the amazing Buton Passage and then on to visit the famous Komodo Dragons en route to Macassar or Bali and beyond.
A big factor in the growing popularity of the race was related to the excellent facilities Darwin offered for yachts and their crews. For many, Darwin would be the last access to western comforts and familiar language for many months.
Pre-race hype and functions also grew over the years, leading to a festival atmosphere and a range of social activities catering to all tastes. Skippers and crews became acquainted and many new alliances and friendships were formed, both within the fleet and with the wider sailing community.
The race start grew from the low key departure of the original race fleet to a festival atmosphere attracting large crowds to many of Darwin Harbour’s cliff-top and beachside vantage points. The Royal Australian Navy also entered the spirit providing a start line firing of the Bofor in the finest nautical tradition. A substantial fleet of spectator craft added colour and excitement to the spectacle, along with the helicopters and light planes associated with the extensive media coverage.
Daily position reports along with commentary on weather and sea conditions were soon being published and broadcast. The media coverage served two purposes – family and friends were able to follow the fortunes of their favourites, and wider community interest in the race grew as people learned more about it. Local radio ran many interviews with skippers and crew covering everything from yacht maintenance and preparation for an ocean voyage through to menu selection and food preparation techniques in heavy seas.
The first post script to this delightful story is sadly, again, related to regional political instability. By 1998, annual race entries had reached almost 100. Political instability in Ambon forced the cancellation of the 1999 race, and it was not held for the next 8 years.
A deputation from Ambon visited Darwin in April 2006 with a view to getting the event restarted. It was during this visit that Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Association Incorporated (DBCYA) were approached. They expressed interest but only if the situation in Ambon was safe and secure. Three Members from Dinah Beach C.Y.A. Inc visited Ambon shortly thereafter and returned to the Club advising that in their opinion the situation in Ambon was ready to accept International yachts and crews.
Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Association Inc. established links with Ambon, and introduced their inaugural DBCYA Darwin to Ambon Yacht Race on the 21st July 2007.
Race entrants have continued to grow, with the 2013 event attracting a large racing fleet, including national and international yachts as well as the local crowd. Some yachts began the year racing in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, the Australia Day – Geelong Race Week and the Fremantle to Bali Race, before arriving in Darwin to compete in the Round the Islands Yacht Race and Darwin to Ambon Yacht Race. After the festivities and presentation in Ambon, some of the racing fleet will head west to the Phuket King’s Cup – completing the racing circuit for 2013.
Others will spend their time cruising the wonderful islands, some heading north to the Philippines and Borneo, or west to Bali and beyond, while others return the slow route to Darwin via the Banda Islands, Tanimbar Islands and Saumlaki.