In the Beginning

In the past ladies, involvement in boat racing was mostly limited to working for the sailing clubs ladies auxiliary or looking after the children while the menfolk enjoyed their sport. To placate the long-suffering fairer sex most sailing clubs held a “ladies day” where each boat would carry a lady in the racing crew. Either the wife or daughter of the boat owner would brave the elements wearing a fashionably sporty outfit and a sailor’s hat while her friends watch the race from a motor cruiser. These were primarily social events for friends and family where everyone would dress up and have a jolly time.

In 1926 the Sydney Flying Squadron took the concept of ladies day one step further by holding a race with the grand title of “Queen of Port Jackson”. Twenty-four girls entered the race representing Sydney firms. These establishments supported the race by donating prizes. The club provided a spectator ferry and the general public were invited to watch the spectacle and perhaps place a bet with the onboard bookies. At the time members of the SFS were involved with the horse racing scene and gambling was a popular part of the sailing culture.

The inaugural race was held on 4th December 1926. The ladies did not choose their preferred vessel. The drawing for the boats for the girls to sail took place a week before the race at a supper dance at the Cocoa Tree Café, George St opposite the Queen Victoria Markets. This was a popular event as quoted in the local newspaper of the time, “There was great excitement among the members of both sexes – the girls anxious to know if they are nice boys on my boat, and the boys to know” – as one joker put it in a stage whisper – “What sort of tabby did we draw?” Each was anxious to meet the other, and an enjoyable night was spent.”

The success of the day was widely reported as seen in these exerts from the press at the time.

Hail! The Queen of Port Jackson!

Harold Collins Leads Her Home in Florrie II

A Race Full of Thrills – Arline, Gloria and Hall Mark give the Girls a Bath

“Well, the most talked of race of the season is at last finalised, namely, the initial race to decide the Queen of Port Jackson. The honour was won by Miss M. Gourlie, who had a seat in Florrie, who was in the capable hands of Harold Collins and a hard-working crew. The breeze was fairly hard from the nor’ east, and the way in which some of the boats lumped their huge sails around the course was indeed a tribute to skippers, crews and gear. When the boats manoeuvring for a start it was seen that a few would have their work cut out to struggle past the post, and as it turned out, there were quite a few who did not see the distance out, namely Arline Gloria and Hall Mark: these three boats, together with their lady members, caused quite a stir when they hit the “big drink”. To take the smiles on the ladies’ faces before the start as a fair estimate, you would have said they were enjoying themselves wonderfully – in fact, they looked like seasoned campaigners. Miss A. Bell, in Onda, who was resplendent in a new red and white Guernsey and tam o’shanter to match, looked a picture as she took her seat in the Onda. The patrons on the ferry were tipping this boat freely.”

“The number of the fair sex who went down to see their friends take part went away with firm intentions of coming down next week, and will be a welcome addition to the regulars.”

 “Judging by the number of invitations to join the crews permanently that were extended to the girls after the race on Saturday, a number of skippers must have seen some merit in the girls’ display. One young skipper was heard to say “I wish you would come out with us every Saturday you’re a jolly sight better than some of the chaps I pick up each week,” 

“Another great fallacy that received a severe black eye in the Queens’ race was the oft-repeated statement – and yes oft repeated by those who should know better – that the general run of the 18-footer boys were a lot of tough birds – men who outdid the famous “Pirates of Penzance” in their use of bad language, and it would never do for the girls to go amongst such fellows – their hair would turn green or even pink. This and a lot more. While not endeavouring to cover them or any other section of the community with the cloak of innocence, we made inquires and put the question “Is Zat So?” to a number of the crew and the girls as to how the race was sailed. “I never heard a word out of place, either in our boat or the others in which we came in contact.” This was the girls’ invariable reply, while the skippers and crews were unanimous in their claim that it was the keenest race they participated in. Which is just as it should be, going to show that although most of the 18-footer boys are of the hard toiling type, there is just as much of the gentleman secreted under the shirts as exists in any section of the community – all of which tends to show that the Queen of Port Jackson competition was a magnificent success.”

 “One of the largest crowds ever seen on Clark Island at a sailing race” was the general opinion expressed by the regulars last Saturday. Mothers, sisters, cousins and aunts of the girls turned up in great force to see their champions win. One devoted mother, who had never seen a boat race before, was observed to grow very excited, and wave her arms when the boats would get a black’un and fill up, exclaiming, “Oh, I do wish my Lily is not in that one!” We won’t mention any names but “Lily’s” boat finished last – after a most precarious passage.”

 On December 18, 1926, the press reported,

“ The wind-up of the Queen of Port Jackson competition will take place at a dance to be held at the Paddington Town Hall on next Monday night 20th December, when the Queen of Port Jackson (Miss M Gourlie) will be officially crowned by the lady mayoress amid her galaxy of waiting maids (who were all competitors in the race) and all the splendour that such an important event calls for. If you haven’t already labelled this dance on your fixture card, make a late decision and come along for a good time. Mind, in years to come, you will be able to tell them how you witnessed the crowning of the first Queen of Port Jackson.”

After the event it was reported;

“The function attracted a large crowd and was unanimously voted as easily the greatest social event in the history of 18-footers.”

 The next Queen’s race was raced in wild weather on 9th February 1929 and was widely reported as a success in the sailing journals of the day.

Ladies Day Proves a Great Success!

Keriki Brings Home the Queen

“Ladies’ day of 1928-9 season will long be remembered for the exciting situations that arose during the race itself, and the great enthusiasm of the fair barrackers that shrilled with delight as each thrilling moment presented itself. Particularly was this so when a heavy rain squall caught the fleet under all extras on the way to Clark Island, and some wonderful saves were made.”

The race of Saturday last was won by a great display of consistently good sailing by Lan Taylor and a good crew, and so Miss Davidson, of Anthony Hordern’s, will be crowned Queen of Port Jackson at a social evening to be held at the Australian Hall on Thursday, 14th March 1929.”

“Hurrah for the Queen!”

Girls’ Buoyant Spirits.”

“The day turned out anything but pleasant; the low threatening rain clouds no doubt kept a lot of people away, and the prospect of a good wetting for the girls in the boats were amply fulfilled later on in the afternoon by some heavy downpours that carried with them hard squally winds.”

But it takes a lot more than a drop of rain to dampen the spirits of our Australian girls, and the keynote of the whole race was the laughter and good humour, both on the steamers and in the boats.”

Some of the boys must have felt uncomfortable at times when things happened – for the loudspeakers were turned off for the day. Particularly was this brought home when Press and Mascotte got tangled up down at the “Wedding cake” mark. There were words aplenty, but they were gentle words – thanks to the restraining influence of the girls aboard!”

The success of this race proves that the public like a bit of variety in the bill–of–fare.”

The Queen of port Jackson was crowned at a dance on Thursday 14th March 1929. The newspaper reports of the time noted:

the unbounded enthusiasm of the huge crowd attending” and the dance floor was “labelled standing room only”.  Although the 1926 Queens’ dance was voted the greatest event in 18 –footer history the 1929 event even surpassed this claim “Everyone voted it one of the greatest in the history of the sport of sailing!”

1930 Queen of the Harbour

The members of the SFS were riding the wave of enthusiasm generated by the success of the 1929 Queen of Port Jackson. Later in that year, J. J Giltinan was part of a committee that took the competition to new heights by making it a means to raise funds for the newly constructed hospital ward for the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington.

This new competition was called the Queen of the Harbour. Ladies were nominated to represent an establishment, factory, office or district. The candidates for the title were divided into 23 groups and the candidate in each group who obtained the most penny votes by 13th December 1929 sailed in one of the eighteen footers in the race. The lady who won the race was declared the Queen of the Harbour and won an Austin 7 roadster car as a prize, and was crowned by Neptune himself at the Queen of the Harbour Ball at Sydney Town Hall.

This created quite a stir amongst the ladies who were quite interested in winning the car. Apart from the obvious attraction of the prize, the girls were keen to secure the honour and the glory of the title. The new building at the Royal Hospital would be named in perpetuity. It was to be called the Sydney Flying Squadron Ward and the name of the Queen of the Harbour together with group winners was to be engraved on a special plate in the main hall of the hospital. All the young ladies about town wanted to be part of the action and out of the many hopefuls 113 candidates were selected to compete.

To raise money the girls held picnics and at least 20 fancy fairs and the number of dances and balls ran into hundreds. Miss M. Bollard organised a Gymkhana at Canterbury Park Racecourse for horses and cars. In total, the ladies raised 5840 pounds, quite a sum in those days.

In the lead=up to the race, the press stirred the interest of the Sydney public. Both the NSW Premier and the Navy Vice Commodore gave support to the event. In the months before the race, the girls had several practice days that proved popular media spectacles. One newspaper of the time reports:

Queen of the Harbour

 Trial Run Thrills

“Twelve of the 18-footers including Yendys, Keriki, NSW, Furious, Pastime, Australia, Arawatta, Arakoon, Liberty and Kiwi, sailed to Clifton Gardens last weekend, and took part in the big 18-footer “Queen of the Harbour” picnic, and gave the competition candidates some thrilling and exciting trial runs around Watson’s Bay pile light.”

 “Seventy-three candidates attended the outing, and they were also given the thrill of being talkied. The Fox Movie-tone talking outfit, on Mr Lan Taylor’s launch, recorded pictures of the candidates, and also showed them going through 18-footer practice; swinging out on the boats, climbing the mast and running the bumpkin. When swinging out, a humorous turn was added by the crew suddenly going inboard and treating the girls, swinging out to a salt bath.”

 Telling the World

“The “talkie” of the outing will be shown at leading theatres in a few weeks time, and later will be shown throughout the Commonwealth and all parts of the world. The point emphasised in the talkie was that our 18-footers are unique – they carry more sail for their size than any other sailing boats in the world, and their crews are all good sports, always ready to help a good cause.”

 The day

“The morning of the event opened up in gloomy, windless, scorching heat that foreboded a storm. As the day wore on the storm came all right in the shape of a hard and squally southerly that provided more thrills and exciting incidents than are usually crowded into an afternoon’s racing.”

“The boats all carried too much canvas for the blow. Out of the twenty-nine starters, only ten boats completed the race. Britannia, Yendys, Arawatta, Kiwi and Keriki capsized and the other fourteen boats retired.”

“The outstanding feature of the day was the sterling performance of Billy Fisher and his crew in flogging Australia from scratch through the large fleet and humping a fairly big sail to victory in a race that was brim-full of sensational happenings from start to finish.”

From the newspapers of the time here is a description of the day’s festivities;

 “At Clark Island, the girls, after roll call dived into a marquee and changed into their yachting rig. Then followed a parade and a competition for the most suitable and attractive costume.”

 “The girls were taken out in a launch one by one their boats took them aboard. Many had little or no experience of sailing in 18-footers but they showed no trepidation.”

 “When the young Queen came to be crowned and stepped from her boat to the Premier, women kissed her enthusiastically. Wet and happy Mary Casey looked even more charming than before the race. Mrs Garlick decorated her with a sash, “Queen of the Harbour”. A Curtis bi-plane, piloted by Mr Laurie Nall, dropped a pair of wings and another sash from “Australian Airmen”. These were presented to Miss Casey by Mrs Stuart Doyle.”

 “Meanwhile, crowded ferries circled around the Premier, wildly cheering the happy Queen, waving delightfully and blowing kisses. Harbour craft of all descriptions converged on the Premier, and cheers and sirens applauded the success of the Queen.”

The Queen of the Harbour Ball

850 attend at the Sydney Town Hall

“One-eyed pirates, buccaneers, sailors of both sexes, spotlights, gay colourings and fancy dresses, made the Sydney Flying Squadron’s Queen of the Harbour the greatest and most brilliant social function ever know in the history of the sailing movement.” 

“When Miss Ena Casey of the Railway refreshment rooms, was crowned Queen of Sydney Harbour by Father Neptune, holding aloft his silver trident and crown the scene was magnificent.”

 “The Queen resplendent in a shimmering frock of silver cloth previously led a procession of gaily-decked sailing men and girls around the hall in an Austin car cleverly camouflaged as a sailing boat, which was presumably towed.”


The initial years the Queen of the Harbour race and Ball grew to become “the greatest and most brilliant social function ever know in the history of the sailing movement”. I wonder in modern times if we can recreate or even out do the glories of our former members? Can the 2021 Queen of the Harbour event rise to the occasion?

By Leanne Gould