Doug Lithgow’s earliest memory of the Festival of Sails is from close to half a century ago, when he and his dad were leading a former feeder race across Port Phillip from Mornington to Geelong in heavy winds. At 10 years of age Doug had to radio the organisers to reassure them not only was the crew of the tiny 20-footer safe, they were ahead of much bigger boats on approach to the Bellarine Peninsula’s Portarlington.
In 46 years of contesting the historical regatta Lithgow has only missed one or two, amazing dedication considering it’s a five hour round trip from the 1,000 head cattle farm he and wife Susan own at Benalla in Victoria’s High Country.
Lithgow will return for the 2017 Festival of Sails presented by Rex Gorell Land Rover starting January 21 with his Archambault 40 of five years, Soiree Blue, which is kept at the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria.
Taking a break from marking cattle on his 3,600 acre property, Lithgow talks about how someone who lives far from the coast came to be racing at such a high level. “My father was a keen sailor and when I was younger we had trailer sailers and we’d go to the Gippsland Lake for sailing holidays with my two sisters.
“I remember our Boomerang 20 and that race from Mornington to Geelong. Dad couldn’t get off the helm in the howling sou’easter with a spinnaker up and neither could his mate leave his position so I had to call the radio relay ship and tell them we were ok, and leading the fleet of much bigger boats at that time!”
For Lithgow sailing and farming are so different that one provides the ideal break and contrast to the other. “I’ve sailed all my life from dinghies when I was little to family trailables and then my own boats,” Lithgow says. “It’s hard doing a five hour drive to go sailing but I’m committed. Geelong’s a big weekend; there are always plenty of guys who want to come with me though we are a bit more sensible these days….”
Soiree Blue is a family affair with one of his sisters a regular crewmember and her daughters keen to be part of the team. Lithgow’s wife is the crew coordinator and their own sons, 10 and 12, sail Sabots on a nearby lake, when they aren’t playing country sports, with the hope they’ll step up to the bigger yacht when the time is right.
Lithgow is entered in the Cruising AMS division, one of eight options offered. Competitors can also nominate for the Rating Series, Super 11, cruising spinnaker and non-spinnaker, sports boats, S80 and multihull divisions.
Simon Bell’s Archie, a smaller Archambault to Soiree Blue at 35-feet is another quality Cruising AMS entrant. Cruising with Spinnaker is always the largest division at the Festival of Sails and based on early numbers is set to generate the most interest, fun and colour again in 2017.
The Grand Prix element of Victoria’s oldest sporting trophy, born in 1844 and first run by the RGYC in 1925, is taking shape with indications a top fleet of TP52s, including the three-time Australian Yachting Champion Team Beau Geste from Hong Kong/New Zealand and Adelaide based Secret Mens Business, will front the annual regatta for a slice of the prize pool.
The Festival’s core sailing component will be conducted January 21-24 then two new series, for off-the-beach and trailable boats, will take the on-water program through to Friday January 27, 2017. January is a huge month for the RGYC which is also hosting the Viper World Championship 7-15.
Image: Soiree Blue in the 2013 Festival of Sails Passage Race, taken by Steb Fisher