Darwin is a great place to go sailing. There is nothing so relaxing as cruising along on the harbour with a cold can in one hand and a chicken leg in the other hand. Pity those poor buggers down south who have to wear thermal gear to stop themselves freezing to death when they go for a sail.
There are perhaps three main events on the sailing calendar (maybe I'm a bit biased):
1. Darwin to Ambon Yacht Race
2. Dinah Beach Wet Season Races
3. Darwin Sailing Club Dry Season Races
Darwin to Ambon Yacht Race
The Darwin to Ambon is a tradition which stretches back over the past 21 years. Originally this race was known as the Darwin to Dili Race, however, after Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, it was decided to stop racing to Dili. Instead the Darwin to Ambon was born and has gone from strength to strength ever since.
Ambon is an Indonesian island some 600 nautical miles due north of Darwin and is considered to be the capital of the Mollucas. The race takes place at the end of July each year with participants from all over the world taking part. This year, 1997, there were some 102 competitors competing in a combination of Racing Class, Multi Hulls, Cruising Class and Raleigh Class. This race has now grown to be the biggest annual international yacht race in the world and injects a tremendous amount into both the Darwin and Ambonese economies.
The race starts in Darwin at 11.00am with all classes starting at the same time. This makes for a very crowded and interesting start line. From the start line (just off the Esplanade), the race heads two or three miles up the coast to a marker off East Point. This gives the spectators on shore a good view of the race before the boats turn towards open water and head away from the mainland. Normally the race takes place with a good South Easterly wind predominating which makes the race a quick, downhill run. Occasionally, as with all the best laid plans, this wind does not eventuate and you may end up with a North Easterly or no wind at all.
Landfall in Ambon is quite spectacular. Ambon is a very pretty island, very steeply sloped hills fall almost vertically down to the waters edge. The sides of the hills are covered in jungle and the shore has small villages dotted all along it. It's a very exotic sight, especially if you finish the race at night and wake up in the morning to your first sight of Ambon. One problem is the anchorage which is bloody useless due to the sharp drop off close into shore. If you do go to Ambon, make sure that you have a decent fore and aft mooring. Luckily there are plenty of coconut palms on the shore to tie your stern too, but make sure that your anchor is well and truly holding and watch out for other boats pulling there anchor and taking yours with it.
Ambon is a great place to visit, the people are friendly, there's quite a bit to see and the shops and restaurants are okay. Ambon is not a tourist destination, so if you're expecting Bali you'll be disappointed. Hotels are basic to say the least. The best place to eat would have to be "Halim's Restaurant". Everyone in the race ends up at Halim's at some stage. Lucas Halim has cornered the market as far as the race is concerned and reason behind his success is simple - cold beer. I kid you not, Halim's sells the coldest beer on the island (and the best Chilli Crab), and because of this his pub is permanently packed out. Lucas even gives each yachtie a free shirt commemorating that years race, a practice which he's been doing for many years.
The official presentation for race winners is held in the Ambon Town Hall the Saturday following the start of the race. All yachties are treated to a great mornings entertainment with dancing and free food and drink (food supplied by Halim's of course). Even though Ambon is a Moslem culture, there is no lack of alcohol. You may get woken up early in the morning by a Mullah calling the faithful to prayer but it's all part of the fun. If you do partake of a bit too much vino, be very, very careful not to fall into the open drains, several people did this year, your truly included. The consequences can be very nasty, I was lucky and only lost my, wallet, sunnies and dignity.
Places to visit on Ambon would include; the Sacred Eels (there are two different sites and one is better than the other - man those eels are HUGE). The beautifully maintained Wargraves Cemetery which contains the grave sites of hundreds of Allied service personnel killed during WWII on Ambon and the various islands in the region. The produce markets close to the docks in Ambon are also worth a visit, but be warned, it is slightly smelly down there. There is also a nautical museum close to the city.
If you get the chance to participate in the Darwin to Ambon yacht race, do it. It really is great fun. For more info visit the Ambon Race website.
Dinah Beach Wet Season Races
Dinah Beach hosts a series of Wet Season races for both racing and cruising classes. The races are mostly held within the confines of the harbour. Various sponsors provide prizes for class winners and there is always a pretty good piss up at the club once the races have finished. Races take place on a Sunday.
If you've ever wished to try yacht racing but don't know anyone with a boat, go down to the club and put a notice on the notice board - you never know, someone may be looking for crew.
Sailing Club Dry Season Races
The Darwin Sailing Club hosts a series of races for various classes of yachts, from Minnows to an extensive off-shore series. The Dry Season Off-shore races tend to be much longer races than those in the Dinah Beach Wet Season races. On occcasion, races are overnighters or, in the case of the Round the Islands race, last for three days. The Sailing club is a friendly venue with good facilities for travellers.
The club itself is very nice with a great outlook over the harbour, with the main Dry Season anchorage for visiting and local yachts situated right in front of the club house - and a nicer anchorage would be hard to find. There's a good bistro in the club and a couple of decent bars. The place is very popular with many people eating there over the weekend and during the week. Cockie's Ships Chandlery is right next to the club and he can supply you with almost anything you require to keep you afloat.
Dry Season races can take place on a Saturday or Sunday, with the occasional Monday thrown in for good measure.