While many of you were fishing, cruising, skiing and racing this summer, I spent mine perched precariously aboard an inflatable runabout, camera in hand, watching other people have fun.
Long story short, Belmont 16s was keen to revitalise the profile of its sailing program, outside interest having waned despite consistently high fleet sizes and performance standards. Its 16ft skiff sailors were somehow perceived as being a bit "distant".
The Saturday classes - Pelicans, Lasers, Flying 11s and Cherubs - appeared overshadowed, with a disconnect between the licenced club's activities and that of the development sailing. Similarly, the learn-to-sail program was getting the numbers, but not the conversion rates it deserved.
It's interesting that an entity with such a stellar history of skiff and dinghy racing, along with a loyal base of volunteers and veterans, would find itself in this dilemma.
The problem, perhaps, lay not with them, but us - the community and mainstream media. Too easily, sustained success becomes part of the furniture, while size is often envied by outsiders - the tall-poppy syndrome.
What I found, during the season and at Saturday's presentation night, couldn't have been further from the perception. Here's a club where officials and competitors alike are championing the cultural values of "Excellence, Enjoyment and Inclusivity".
A friendlier, more helpful bunch of people you could not possibly meet in the 16s. If not well recognised locally, they're highly regarded at a national sailing level. Nor would you find a happier group of parents and sailors in the other classes. Success spoke for itself, with a 16ft Skiff Nationals quinella, a first and third in the Flying 11 Nationals, and a state title secured in the Cherub class.
Around 25 skiffs - including the Newcastle Herald - lined up this season, with little separating the top six or seven boats. Contender Sailcloth prevailed in the club championship, giving brothers Will and Richard Howard, along with Corey Hamilton, their first major title after five years.
Ben Bruniges and his crew aboard Newcastle Financial Planning Group were runners-up, also finishing second in the Nationals over Easter. East Coast Marine and Sail, meanwhile, won the Australian Sprint Series and club point-score.
River Wild claimed the national crown against a Manly contingent who'd largely held a mortgage on the title. Yachting legend Warwick Rooklyn was on the helm, with Belmont-based Laser Olympic gold medallist Tom Burton and 49er sailors Simon Hoffman and Sam Phillips as his elite crew.
"It's a great class," Rooklyn said of the 16s, following his third season. Big numbers, big diversity, and the standard of the fleet is really high. This year, I saw an opportunity to get this team together and put in a fair old effort."
Will Howard concurs: "There's a really good depth of talent and everyone helps each other out at Belmont ... we all have a good beer afterwards in the club."
While the top teams operate on sizeable budgets, prizemoney and other incentives make the entry-level skiffs comparatively affordable for younger crews.
To prepare for the recent Flying 11 nationals, Team Belmont had world-champion sailors Tom Burton, Chris Nicholson and Harry Morton at their coaching disposal. The sailors didn't disappoint.
Against a field of 50 boats, Joel Beashel and Marshall Day won, while Darby Jones and Taj Waters finished third.
The class remains a stepping stone between Belmont's evergreen Pelican and the Cherub, the latter being a 12-foot (3.6-metre) excitement machine with one crew on trapeze and hefty spinnakers. They rocket downwind in a breeze.
Kris Fay and Tom Drury sailed Schmicky Shmootin to victory in the NSW State Championships and club championship. Gold Digger, with Nicole Barnes on the tiller and Brett Lancaster on the wire, came second at the state titles. They also teamed up to win Belmont's yearly pointscore.
Many of the top Cherub crews are male-female combinations like Barnes and Lancaster.
"There's a stereotype in sport that it's male dominant but the girls are absolutely unreal on these boats," Lancaster explained.
Lateisha Bower, skipper of Wally, stepped straight into the class and recommends it: "It's definitely a shock when you first sit on the boat and the thing just powers up," she said. "But we have an awesome group here, all of whom have helped out, and I really recommend it for girls to give it a go."
To learn more, see 16s.com.au/sailing/ and follow the links to the sailing club's website, or follow their Facebook page. I'd love to hear from other clubs in the region about their seasons and plans for next year.
Meanwhile, a quick congratulations and best wishes to Jack O'Rourke who's passed back the helm for this column after two years.
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