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Heaven on earth

Celebrating 128 years in 2019, the Sydney Flying Squadron has one of the richest histories in the sailing world. northsider met with Club Commodore Billy Loader and Club Historian and sailing legend John ‘Steamer’ Stanley to discover more about this local icon…

First published in northsider magazine Summer 2018/2019 issue.

Sydney Flying Squadron, Kirribilli, Sydney Harbour, skiff racing
The club’s skiffs are part of the harbour’s history

It’s Saturday afternoon and Sydney Harbour is sparkling. In a flurry of sea spray, the gleaming 18ft hull of Yendys, a replica of a historic skiff, cuts through the waves.

The crew of eight moves together, their expertise allowing the boat to reach breathtaking speeds of up to 20 knots (37kmph), as Port Jackson’s other famous sails at the Opera House flash past.

“Out on the harbour with your mates, having a laugh… it’s the ride of your life!” smiles Billy Loader.

A fleet of 11 such skiffs belongs to the Sydney Flying Squadron and races on the harbour every Saturday in summer. Affectionately known as ‘the squaddy’, the club was founded by department store entrepreneur Mark Foy in 1891. Situated at the end of Careening Cove in Kirribilli, it’s the oldest open boat sailing club in Sydney.

Foy’s goal was to make the sport accessible to everyone, regardless of background, bank balance or ability.

“Foy just loved boats,” John ‘Steamer’ Stanley says. “He had one of the first power boats in Sydney and we believe he built and sailed one of the first racing catamarans in the world. He wanted the public to enjoy it too.”

“Sailing is seen as elitist, but anyone can come here – it’s an important part of the culture of the club that it’s open to everyone”
Sydney Flying Squadron, Kirribilli, Foys, William Loader, Billy Loader, Steamer, John Stanley, sailing, skiff club
Squaddy goals: Billy, left, and ‘Steamer’

Not everyone agreed with Foy’s egalitarian approach. The sailing establishment banned the squaddy’s boats from the 1892 National Regatta, claiming their coloured sails encouraged gambling and spoilt the look of the harbour’s sailing scene.

Instead of changing tack with the design, which he’d created so spectators on shore could identify the boats, Foy started his own regatta. The squaddy’s regatta drew the biggest crowd the harbour had ever seen for a sailing event. After that, families would pack a picnic and head to watch the boats every weekend, with up to 30,000 people lining the harbour. A further 7,000 would take to the waves on spectator ferries.

The atmosphere even caused one to capsize when passengers rushed to watch an exhilarating race moment.

Sailing is “the ride of your life!”

Foy’s ‘built from an idea and volunteers’ ethos continues today, with the club welcoming newcomers with open arms.

“Sailing is seen as elitist, but anyone can come here,” says Billy. “It’s an important part of the culture of the club that it’s open to everyone.”

“I was born with dislocated hips,” Steamer adds. “I couldn’t play footie but I could sail.

If a kid off the street can’t get the opportunity to sail then the sport’s lost the plot.

“When I first went out on one of the skiffs, we hit a ferry wash and put the spinnaker up, and I just thought, ‘Wow! How good is this?’”

Billy and Steamer speak with pride about the club’s great members, including Billy Barnett – “a legend, he won bloody everything” – and late Clean Up Australia pioneer Ian Kiernan, who referred to the squaddy as “heaven on earth”.

And the camaraderie extends to the shore.

“In the winter, it was like a men’s shed, everyone boat building together,” Billy says.

It’s the passion and dedication to these iconic boats that’s preserved this special part of Sydney Harbour’s sailing history. It’s also seen some members need to do some urgent renovations.

“When Reg Barrington built Tangalooma in his lounge room, he had to remove the wall to get the boat out,” Steamer explains.

The club’s regattas drew huge crowds

Today, there’s no need to pack a picnic. The squaddy clubhouse now has an excellent waterfront bar, restaurant and cafe, run by Bird & Bear’s Adam and Emma Marshall. A spectator ferry still takes to the waves every Saturday too. The action’s just as thrilling as it was all those years ago – and the ferry is a lot more OH&S compliant!

“This is traditional, grass-roots sailing,” Billy says. “It’s back to basics and celebrates a proud heritage on Sydney Harbour. It’s also a lot of fun.

“Go on the ferry, see the boats up close and then we’ll take you out, get that spinnaker up and fly down the harbour,” he continues, a glint in his eye. “There’s no feeling like it.”

Mark Foy would be proud.

Who was Mark Foy?

Born in 1865, Mark Foy was an entrepreneur. He opened Mark Foy’s department store on Oxford Street in Sydney in 1885 and the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains in 1904. Married twice, he had four children and died in 1950 aged 85.

WORDS: Anna Gordon PHOTOS: Ian Woodworth and Bruce Kerridge


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