It was during the historic America’s Cup match in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1983 that Hamilton Island’s developer, Keith Williams, hit on the idea of staging a major annual yacht regatta out of the island.
He discussed it at length with a friend, Rob Mundle, who was reporting on the America's Cup in Newport at that time, then, on his return to Hamilton Island, he approached a Melbourne yachtsman, David Hutchen, who was living in the Whitsunday region, and detailed his idea for the event. Hutchen seized on the concept and was subsequently commissioned by Williams to get it organised.
A few weeks later a small group, including Hutchen, Mundle, and Australia’s original America’s Cup challenge skipper, Jock Sturrock, were at Hamilton Island with a view to formulating the parameters for what would become the now famous Hamilton Island Race Week. With that done, Hutchen headed the organising committee that included two of his sailing mates out of Victoria, Warwick Hoban and Leon O’Donoghue.
The inaugural Hamilton Island Race Week was staged in April 1984, immediately after Easter. The response for the seven-day series was way beyond expectations: 93 yachts travelled from as far afield as Perth to be there. Unfortunately though, the weather was not what anyone had envisioned when it came to sailing in the tropics. The ‘wet season’ lived up to its name: rain poured down for almost the entire week. This led to the series being referred to light-heartedly as Hamilton Island Rain Week in the ‘Wetsundays’. Also, the harbour-front Mardi Gras party that was staged mid-week became known as the ‘Muddy Gras’.
For the first eight years, Race Week was held in April, but the impact the wet season eventually took its toll (Cyclone Aviu visited Race Week in 1989). After much consideration the organisers rescheduled Race Week for August, a time of year that promised warm weather and tradewind sailing.
One of the highlights over the first 25-plus years of Race Week was the Whitehaven Beach Party. It became the signature social event of the week, but unfortunately its fame spread beyond the regatta to the degree where it was being ambushed each year by hundreds of ‘mainlanders’. The beach party was no longer the domain of competitors, their families and friends, so it had to be abandoned.
For many years, prominent sailor and famous Australian vigneron, Bob Oatley, and family members, were regular competitors at Race Week. In 2003 – the year that Bob’s son, Sandy, won the Grand Prix Division with his yacht, Another Duchess – Bob was asked if he might be interested in buying the island. His positive response was almost immediate, and within weeks the family owned the island. Since then the Oatley family has taken Hamilton Island, and Race Week, to the position where both stand as icons in their respective fields in Australia, and internationally.
The 30th staging of what is now Audi Hamilton Island Race Week in 2013 was a huge success. A fleet of more than 200 yachts from Australia and overseas participated.
Every year Hamilton Island Race Week is recognised for setting new standards in the world of sailboat racing. In doing so it remains as Australia’s premier regatta for offshore yachts.