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UNSW Press UNSW Press

An Australia Day tradition

Cheater and Debenham

The Australia Day Regatta has been held on Sydney Harbour since 1837, and its traditions are alive and well, as Christine Cheater and Jennifer Debenham explore in their history of this enduring event.

Every year on Australia Day, hundreds of sailing craft of all sizes take to the waters of Sydney Harbour to celebrate a tradition that has been taking place for over 175 years. Today known as the Australia Day Regatta, this spectacle was first held on 26 January 1837 when a small band of gentlemen decided to celebrate Captain Phillip’s landing in Sydney Cove by ‘getting up’ an Anniversary Day Regatta. Since then it has been held in some form or other every year. Over the ensuing 177 years the regatta has survived challenges from competing factions within Sydney’s boating community, two compulsory public mourning periods following the deaths of Queen Victoria and King George V, two World Wars, extreme weather conditions and widespread public indifference towards it and Australia Day celebrations during the 1970s and ’80s. Despite all that, it remains one of the longest continuing traditions in modern Australian history.

Behind this feat have been many bands of volunteers determined to keep the regatta alive. Every year they have met to plan a public spectacle that has consisted of an ever-changing variety of boat races, a flagship that offers the best views of the races and a private luncheon for honoured guests. Although the types of races have changed over the years, and sailing craft have undergone a transformation, the basic structure of the regatta has remained unchanged. Drawn together by a passion for boating and the spirit of patriotism, some of these volunteers served on the regatta’s organising committees for many years.

A history of the Anniversary/Australia Day Regatta therefore involves more than simply listing the participating boats and the people who rowed or sailed in them. Our book’s principal focus is on the annual regatta as a public and private celebration, and on the people who organised it, their motivations, and how they have kept it alive since its earliest days.

Writing the history of the regatta has involved delving into newspaper reports, surviving committee minutes, letters, reports, regatta programmes, and the collection of oral histories from long-time regatta stalwarts. Through our research we have been able to demonstrate that the Anniversary/Australia Day Regatta has, in historical fact, enjoyed an unbroken run since 1837, which means that it is the oldest continuously held annual regatta in the world. We have also been able to provide an account of how an event organised by volunteers has managed to survive for more than 175 years. And why have these dedicated volunteers given up their time to organise the regatta, year after year? The most commonly echoed response was that organising a regatta is a fine way of celebrating Australia Day, and of giving back to the community. Perhaps current committee member Bruce Gould expresses it best: ‘It’s something constructive you can do on Australia Day instead of sitting around drinking champagne’.

This is an edited extract from The Australia Day Regatta by Christine Cheater and Jennifer Debenham, published by UNSW Press in February 2014.

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