Fleet foreman

Regatta Director, Denis Thompson is as firm a fixture on the Hamilton Island Race Week program as the racing, and this year, he is more eager than ever to head north for that potent blend of competitive sailing, sunshine and socialising.

Written by Jeni Bone
Photography by HIRW

19 July 2022


A stalwart of Race Week in his current role since 2007 and prior to that, on the periphery of every event since its inception in 1984, Denis Thompson is responsible for plotting the racecourses, taking into consideration the tides and the wind conditions.

“Denis is across everything that matters,” says Rob Mundle, close friend of Keith Williams and one of the event’s founders.

“He’s dedicated and precise, nothing’s a problem,” Rob continues. “Whatever the event – and you haven’t got a regatta unless Denis is the Director – he’s got it at his heart.

“It’s his role to make it great and he’ll stand up for that. If the weather’s threatening, he will never risk crews or boats.”

After a two-year hiatus, Thompson admits to feeling nervous and excited about a return to HIRW.

“The competitors tell us they’re looking forward to it and they’re happy to be returning, so that’s the main thing. Of course, we worry about logistics, weather, everything going smoothly, but we can’t wait to get back there.”


A diverse and competitive fleet is just as eager to return to that slice of paradise in the Whitsundays.

Within the first few weeks of releasing the Notice of Race in March, entry numbers topped 200.

“It usually takes us a few months to reach that number of entries,” says Thompson.

“We expected a lot of entries Australia-wide however did not anticipate they would come in so quickly. The Race Committee capped the regatta numbers at 220. That’s lower than the record of 257 back in 2016, but we have a waiting list of around 40 yachts, so the demand was certainly there.

“We want to give all competitors a great experience and ensure there’s enough staff, accommodation, access to onshore events for everyone. Then there’s the issue of marina capacity. The marina staff are moving yachts around like pieces of a puzzle – it’s quite an exercise.”

The allure of the race is that it appeals to all kinds of people – from sailors and the yachting fraternity to fashionistas, gourmands and travellers craving tropical climes.

“It’s a combination of things; it’s the right place, at the right time of year when the weather is considerably warmer than other parts of the country,” explains Thompson.

“There are so many islands in the Whitsundays that are perfect for sailing, and warm, calm water. And most of all, there’s the camaraderie among sailors and visitors, plus all the onshore events to keep everybody happy.”

There are various race categories, including the IRC Australian Yachting Championship, which has attracted 49 yachts, and the OMR (Offshore Multihull Rating) for which eight racing multihulls are registered, as well as 35 cruising multis lining up for the Multihull Cruising Class.

Other divisions include the TP52 Class; One Design Class – such as MC38, M32 and Sydney38; Hamilton Island Class – boats between 9 metres and 30 metres which will sail passage races with islands as course marks; Non-Spinnaker Class – same requirements as Hamilton Island Class but boats sail with only main and headsails; and the Trailerable division, which will sail mostly passage races.

Providing some extra buzz will be the battle of the multis between champion racer, Andoo Comanche, chartered and skippered by John “Herman” Winning Jnr, and local favourite, Hamilton Island Wild Oats XI, helmed by Mark “Ricko” Richards, competing in the Australian Yachting Championship and the Hamilton Island Race Week Rating Class.

“They will both have something to prove,” states Thompson, “and perhaps for the general public who just watch the Sydney-Hobart once a year, they are a drawcard, but for the rest of the sailing population, they’re just another couple of boats up there.

“There’s some very intense rivalry right throughout the whole fleet, among the multihulls and trailerable boats.

“I think between the two maxis, there’s a bit of rivalry, obviously, and Wild Oats has something to prove, because it’s their own backyard, and Comanche has some new boys on board, so it will be interesting.

“I would expect Wild Oats to do quite well against Comanche on the courses at Race Week, but I could be totally wrong too!

Comanche is very much out of one corner of the design area. It suits one or two particular types of conditions. Whereas for a regatta, you’re ging to get a variety of conditions and you need an all-rounder. I don’t think Wild Oats is necessarily an all-rounder, but Comanche is more of an outlier than Wild Oats. It will be exciting to watch.”

In the trailer boats class, there will be 14 vessels competing. “They find it’s cheaper than a lot of other regattas,” says Thompson. “You can stay onboard, shop at the IGA, enjoy the atmosphere and the racing.”

Then, once the racing is run and won, there’s the perennially popular Prix d’Elegance, introduced in 2007, which awards two prizes for the yachts best decorated in theme. This year’s sensational prize is a two-night stay for two supplied by Hamilton Island’s luxury retreat, qualia.

“We change things every year, but it’s evolution, not revolution. Boats have become more dynamic, less that struggle to get around the course. The modern boats do pretty well going to windward and against the tide, which we always have at Hamilton Island.

“We work very hard at choosing the right courses every day. On my list of courses this year, there’s something like 42 I can choose from. With so many vessels, half the fleet has to start at Dent Passage and the other half starts on the eastern side, so I have to have a range of courses for each area, each day, and for the tides each day. It’s quite complicated.

“So, we have developed the racing over the years, and certainly the events shoreside, which are always an attraction.”

For those not competing on water, there’s a diverse range of onshore events which can be just as hectic; gourmet lunches, poolside soirees, fashion shows, live entertainment and special guest speakers, beach yoga and the final evening Prize Giving.

In sponsorship news, Nautilus Marine Insurance has come on board as a major sponsor, replacing Club Marine.

Thompson is also Race Director for Magnetic Island Race Week, 1 to 7 September, but decided not to commit to Airlie Beach Race Week this year.

“I can’t fit Airlie Beach in this year, it’s too much of a squeeze for me. Entries for Maggie were open for four hours before it was filled, which is wonderful. We’ve got about 75 boats registered for Maggie.”

Around half a dozen compete in all three regattas, many more compete in two, as Thompson explains. “They mix and match, and generally change crews.”

Mako [Sydney 40] from Newcastle is going to do everything. They start off competes in the Sydney Gold Coast Race, 30 July, Brisbane to Hamilton Island Race, 5 August, then Airlie Beach Race Week, 11 August, followed by HIRW, 20 August, and Magnetic Island Race Week, starting 1 September.

“It’s owned by a syndicate at Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club, and they’ll rotate crews for each event. It’s a way for the Newcastle members to go ocean racing and get a taste of major regattas. It’s a well-travelled boat which has done Sydney Hobart. They have some pretty good sailors on board and they do very well.”

Looking ahead, Thompson is confident the weather will be “just perfect”.

“When I work out the courses, I assume the south-east trade winds will blow at 15 knots every day and it will be 25 degrees. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway.

“Ken Batt will be doing the weather again this year. He’s a yachtie himself and he understands the Whitsundays, so he knows what sailors need and we listen to him.”

For his part, Thompson is looking forward to seeing old mates and some competitive racing.

“I love the ambience of the event. I like the fact that we’re sailing in the south-easterly Trade Winds. The Island is far enough into the Whitsunday Passage that the Trade Winds are always reliable. There’s good winds, good weather, good sailing and good people. It ticks all the boxes.”

The 36th edition of Hamilton Island Race Week will run 20 to 27 August.



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