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  • Writer's pictureBill Manning

Racing North in Polar Bear 1984 to 1998

We had a great time in the Sydney to Southport Yacht races which were heldannually in the winter starting the last week in July. We sailed in Cyan, Norske but the best times were in Polar Bear owned by Malcolm Levy and David Watson. We competed 11 times in Polar Bear from 1984 to 1998.

The yacht was named after the Polar Bear on the bottle of Bundaburg dark rum. The crew of eight most commonly were Malcolm Levy, David Watson, Bruce Dickson, Leon Cremer, Mark Ross, Paul Kerrigan, Jim Dunstan and myself Bill Manning. She is a downwind flyer and hopeless upwind.

Bill Manning Blog - Bundaberg

We have amalgamated a few anecdotes from the 11 races into this story. Let me start with the with the pre race stir. Malcolm was publishing job lists for the crew 4 weeks prior to the race and in it he listed the crew for Southport. He always mentioned his sister Kay as ‘Monique Dupre’ as a crew member and was stirring the crew by including a female in the crew. (She was a professional ice skater in Paris France and had just returned home and Monique Dupre was her stage name.)

I thought I would add a little spice to the situation knowing just who was the imposter, by inviting a work colleague Marie-Ange Charles a French speaker from Mauritius to the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron the morning of the start. Well, then Kay and Marie-Ange met on the boat both speaking French both claiming to be Monique Dupre, which then developed into an argument. I asked Marie-Ange what did she say. Her reply was

“I knew she was not French because she said something a French lady would never say”.

It was our practice to request each member of the crew to bring a nominated meal for the race. Malcolm as usual was first with a roast dinner. He usually had a meat dish (a haunch of lamb), potatoes, pumpkin, peas, beans with the usual sauces. Finished off with a hot apple pie and cream. This worked well if it was a southerly wind (as in the photo) but not so good in a northerly wind when we wore it. Other meals included Whole Baked Snapper, Pickled Pork, Polar Pie and Prime Roast beef. My specialty was breakfast which included bacon, eggs to order, devilled kidneys, train smash and Bloody Marys.

At one start on the line we were on starboard tack going for the line when a big yacht Brindabella barged down from windward position and collided with us. The result was our bow collected his stanchions from the bow to stern. At the protest he admitted liability but he did not report the incident to the race committee and complete a 720 degree turn as he was required to do. In the protest the committee did not want to hear us and excused us from the meeting.

The race began in a 12 knot breeze from the north east, not the best weather for Polar Bear. We were last boat out of the heads. On the first night out the wind changed to a very light westerly. We were very close in on the coast. By right in, it was 300 metres from the shoreline. It turned out that we had a very private breeze, we were making 3 knots up the coast. Looking out to sea we could see red (port) lights going south. Our competitors were in the south setting set while we were in a northerly eddy with the very light westerly going north. I was the navigator in an era prior to satnav. I stayed up all night while we had this tremendous advantage. I eventually went to bed at about 0600 hrs. At about 0730 hrs off Newcastle the on watch crew called out Billy come and have a look at this. Well, I thought it was a joke so I did not get up. Then there was cheering from our crew as Sovereign the big 60 footer passed uswith David Kellett on the helm and Bruce Gould trimming. The Polar Bear crew displayed their cooked breakfast as partof they're gloating.

Now Malcolm had purchased an Italian navigation set of instruments which unfortunately went into a whir every time I pressed the transmit button on the two way radio (or HF radio). This made it very difficult to navigate because the distance log never gave an accurate distance measurement for dead reckoning positioning. Now we were approaching the Sandon Shoals . So I timed the boat distance travelled from the last known position to what I thought was a position safe enough to bear away for the next headland. Bruce Dickson was on the helm and Leon Cremer was trimming when I said

“You can pull away now”.

After a minute on the new course surf appeared in front of the boat and a mountenance wave came up at the stern. Bruce being an old surf boat sweep steered the Polar Bear down the wave and into the next one but we were across the Sandon Sholes. Bruce said it was the best wave he had caught in many a year. Naturally I was blamed for the near floundering of the boat.

After that navigational error I determined not to let it happen again. Malcolm saw what happened next this way.

As dawn broke on the final day of racing in a 35 knot WS wind accompanied by steep following seas, it was discovered that Australia had disappeared! Her crack navigator , Billy (Bubbles) Manning (of Caprice of Huon and America’s Cup Navigator & Helmsman Par Excellence fame) set a course of 015 degrees from his bunk after passing Cape Byron, and requesting that he not be disturbed until dawn.

When he staggered to the deck in his dressing gown and slippers, he admitted that he indeed lost Australia! Nevertheless Polar Bear went on to win the race and the feat was subsequently repeated in later years just to prove a point.

In 1988 we started and finished on the same tack in exactly 2 days and were placed second. Every other year took 3 days plus. In 1998 we finished first.

Another of Malcolm’s innovations was to publish a newsletter (Polar bear droppings) daily for the race. It was placed under our pillows every morning.


Polar Bear Droppings

Monday 3rd August 1991

Good morning all. We apologise for calling you out last night however it was necessary due to the wind change at 0400 hrs. Other than that it was a most satisfactory evening with mild weather but somewhat cold water.

Breakfast this morning is available at 0730 hrs. We have choices of:

  • Orange juice or grapefruit

  • Cornflakes or weetbix with warm or cold milk

  • Devilled kidneys or eggs (Boiled, poached or fried) and bacon

  • Toast butter and strawberry jam or English crumpets

  • Tea or coffee

Please have your order in by 0715 hrs.

Early this morning we passed Sugarloaf with Port Macquarie to the port side by lunch time. We anticipate being off Coffs Harbour at sunset.

This evening we will be threading the rocks of the Solitary Islands. Be on deck for this spectacle and see the skill of your navigator Malcolm Levy as the Polar Bear passes bricks and sandbanks with inches to spare. You will not need binoculars for this spectacle.

Onboard entertainment will be available for all guests. Firstly we will have deck quoits on the fore deck immediately after breakfast. This will be followed by navigation coaching in the main saloon.

Lunch will be available at 12 noon. It will conclude at 1245 as the saloon is required for cartography lessons in the afternoon.

At 1700 hrs pre dinner drinks, cocktails and savouries will be available in the Paradise Lounge.

Please note that the Polar Bear dress code will apply. Dinner will be served at 1830 hrs. The menu will be:

  • Sydney Rock Oysters (1 Doz Each)

  • Fried South Australian Whiting

  • Oberon Roast Lamb with potatoes and 3 vegetables

  • Bombe Alaska

  • House White and Red wines will be served from our extensive cellar.

Lights out will be at 2100hrs.

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