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SeaLink Magnetic Island Race Week: Denis Thompson shares his passion for yachting.

Written by Di Pearson
Photography by Andrea Francolini

27 August 2022


Sailing events happen throughout the year and year round across Australia; you run into a lot of the same people, especially the race officers and volunteers who make each regatta and race what they are – but do you really know these people as well as you think you do?

We sat down with renowned Principal Race Officer, Denis Thompson, ahead of his duties at SeaLink Magnetic Island Race Week and put some questions to him.

Would you still call yourself a Kiwi – or do you consider yourself an Aussie?

I am an Australian. I barrack for the Wallabies, not the All Blacks. That’s not to say I don’t follow what happens in New Zealand.

Were you/are you a sailor?

I started on small dinghies, but not for long, then I moved to bigger boats doing keelboat racing and mainly done that all my life. I don’t get the chance much now, haven’t had for a couple of years.


When did you move to Australia and was it straight to Sydney?

The first time was 1969 when I was 19 or something like that. After, I went to Europe, as people do when they travel and backwards and forwards to New Zealand to take my son to school there, particularly high school. He went to university there as well, but he lives in Sydney now.

It’s my son’s 50th during Race Week and he has two kids, my grandkids, a granddaughter 17 and my grandson turns 15 in about a month’s time.

When did you meet Maggie, your partner, who is integral to what you do?

I met Maggie in New Zealand three years before coming to Australia. And yes, she is a big part of what I do and travels with me regularly to regattas as a volunteer.

How many SeaLink Magnetic Island Race Weeks have you done as PRO?

I was there from the start in 2007 and help set it up.

And other Race Weeks?

I’ve been doing Hamilton Island since 2007 also. I did 10 Airlie Beach Race Weeks and I’ve done around 15 Festival of Sails. I’ve also been with Sail Port Stephens since Day 1 in 2007.

What other events do you do?

Lots of regattas and races for clubs such as the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, Middle Harbour Yacht Club, Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron and Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club.

I also do events for New Caledonia Yacht Club, races such as the Groupama Race and match racing events, including the Youth Match Racing Worlds a few years back.

What are your highlights thus far?

Being a race officer for the 2000 Olympics was special.

Maggie Island has its place because I’ve been there right from the beginning and seen it develop from its early days. It’s quite different in its own way. Each regatta is slightly different, each has its own personality.

What’s different about Magnetic Island?

People still race hard and expect good courses, but it has a North Queensland flavour about it.

What do you try to bring to each event?

The regattas and races are for the sailors. I think of the sailors as our customers and I always try to do the best for the customers.

What set you on the path to race management and becoming a PRO?

I was involved in a small club in New Zealand where everyone has a go at everything. I quite enjoyed race management and considered it a challenge.

There were some good race officers in New Zealand and I wanted to see if I could work my up to being as good as they were.

I’m always trying to improve myself. I don’t rest on my laurels. It’s about giving our customers the best and making good decisions. Hopefully, 90 percent of your decisions are right. As Garry Player said, “the more you practice, the better you become”.

What did you do to reach PRO status?

You start as a club race officer, work your way to state race officer, then to national and from there, international.

When you get to international standard, there are various grades, but once there, you should be able to run international events through to Olympics.

Would you encourage others to go down this path?

I’d like to see more younger people do what I do. There are a few coming through, but not like we’ve seen in the past, such as in the lead up to the 2000 Olympics.

We’ve lost a few people since that time and we have to train people up. Maybe the Olympics coming to Queensland in 2032 might give some people the impetus again.

What else do you do in your role?

I do a lot of seminars, but the thing you can’t teach is experience. You get that by maintaining your interest and with longevity.

I’ve had a pretty good time doing what I do. In 2018 I was presented with Australian Sailing’s President’s Award. It’s nice to have because it means you are recognised by your peers.

Do you have any characteristics you’re known for?

Yes, among the race officers I work with and the sailors. When I got cancer a few years ago, I could imagine lying in a cask and someone, or a few someone’s, calling out; “drop, drop, drop!” (This is his instruction for laying marks, particularly the start pin.)

Fortunately, I’m rid of the cancer, the magic drug has kept it away, with no side effects. I have tests every three months. I look at life differently since I had the cancer.

Magnetic Island Race Week runs from 1 to 7 September 2022.

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