On a day of reasonably light winds in Enoshima, Japan early on a Monday morning back in October 1964, the Australian crew of the 'Barranjoey' thought their luck had run out. This is the story of Australia's oldest Olympic Champion, Bill Northam and his crewmates Dick Sargeant and Peter O'Donnell.
Crewman Dick Sargeant recalls there was virtually no wind blowing on the bay, with conditions pointing to a decisive US or Swedish victory in the 5.5 metre sailing class at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games.
“After the typhoon warning which happened a few days before the regatta, we arrive on the first day of competition and there was very light weather which made us quite worried - we were worried about our light weather speed as you don’t get those conditions in places like Australia a lot. Well…. We ended up winning that first race, and all of a sudden we thought we might get out of this (the Olympics) ok.”
Over the next three days, Bill Northam, Dick Sargeant and Peter (Pod) O’Donnell would go on to sail their way into Australian Olympic history, claiming Australia's first gold medal in the sport.
The crew of 'The Barranjoey' within a space of two years had gone onto achieve the most unlikely of dreams in the most peculiar of circumstances.
While winning the gold medal was memorable, arguably how the crew aboard this great boat came together is a just as good a story in itself.
Both Pod and Dick were both in their sailing primes, being late twenties and with accumulated experience second to none, being crews aboard boats such as the Americas Cup contender, ‘Gretel’.
Bill Northam was possibly the most unlikely character to be an Olympic sailor – an esteemed businessman, a confidant of Sir Frank Packer and a lover of the finer things in life including a daily glass of Ballantines Scotch to start his day.
Throw in the fact that he was going on 59 years old – going to the Olympic Games ahead of the likes of greats and sailing royalty like Jock Sturrock, Bill’s chances seemed more laughable than fathomable.
While a number of factors weren’t on his side, Bill had the financial resources and despite every sign pointing to it being a stupidly ambitious idea, in 1963 he decided to build a boat he thought could challenge in the upcoming Australian Olympic Qualifiers at Lake Macquarie.
With the Games so close, it was a gamble but when the two young sailors in the US caught wind of the ambition of the brash businessman, they immediately wanted to get on board.
“When I was sailing on the Gretel, I heard a guy well known in the sailing world, Bill Northam, was building a boat (the Barranjoey) and was going to try and qualify for the Olympics. Pod and I were available, so we asked him and he was keen to have us come back home and be in his crew.
“We had no idea at all whether we would be competitive, but we wanted to give it a try anyway”. Dick Sargeant recalls.
While the crew was now assembled – the next task in qualifying was going to be a mammoth task. Competing against the likes of Norman Booth and Jock Sturrock – two sailors who had multiple National titles between them and who were already well established as Australia’s elite 5.5m class sailors – if the 'Barranjoey' was to win, it would have defy the odds.
Bill Northam’s son, Rodney recounts their comfortable victory in the qualification race immediately sparked calls for a re-match.
“When my Dad qualified it really shocked a lot of people. People thought that he was too old and didn’t have enough experience to go to the Olympic Games. So, when he did win at Lake Macquarie, they challenged him to a ‘winner takes all’ series on Sydney Harbour. He ended up flogging them again and so off he went to the games.”
While it was always a dream of Northam’s to go to the Olympic Games, going to Tokyo was made even more special with Rodney as a reserve of the rowing team. The pair marched together in the Opening Ceremony, experiencing the roar of the Japanese crowd on the evening of the 10th of October.
“So me and my Dad walked out to a crowd like you have never experienced before – a hundred thousand fans or so. But the one thing I remember more than anything going out on that night was my dad in cheek telling me, “I’m not sure I can do the full 400 metres son”.
While being in Japan was already a milestone, Bill and the crew aboard the 'Barranjoey' weren’t finished disturbing the status quo sailing hierarchy.
Going into the Olympic Regatta, Dick Sargeant recalls it was the US with all the fanfare and the team everyone expected to win.
“The Americans were the favourites – they had the best sailors, the best equipment, the best boat – you could be mistaken for thinking everyone else was making up the numbers. So no one really took us that seriously at the start.”
From the very first day, when the crew aboard the 'Barranjoey' defied their own expectations, winning in unfavourable conditions, slowly over the course of the regatta, their continual solid results quickly built their confidence.
“Despite going poorly in the fifth race, we were really determined to win, we were getting really good results placing a lot and on paper something that probably shouldn’t have worked was working.” Sargeant says.
“We were really happy with how we were going. Myself and Pod (O’Donnell) were making sure we did everything we could to prepare well, and Bill even quipped to us that he cut down from two to one bottles of Scotch a day.”
While things were going exceedingly well for the Australians – achieving multiple places across the course of the regatta, going into the final day of competition, the inevitable seemed likely, the US seemed on track to another gold.
Whether it was a stroke of luck or possibly the sailing gods tipping their hats to the crew aboard the 'Barranjoey' – the extraordinary happened on the final day of competition to seal it for the Australians.
“We knew it was going to a tough final race, the US were going strong, the Swedes were making a push. It wasn’t until the last turn when the Americans went too far wide and got a Did Not Finish we realised what we had done. Whether it was a stroke a luck or not, I’m not sure – I still don’t even know why they did it, they didn’t need to and would have easily won if they didn’t,” Sargeant said.
The Australians had done it – after overcoming nearly every obstacle put in their path, they were gold medallists – an extraordinary feat which would go into Australian sailing folklore.
This crew is still remembered today as having kick-started Olympic success in what is now, one of our nation’s most successful sports.
55 years later, the only crew member still with us from the 'Barranjoey' is Dick Sargeant, who lives close to the ocean at Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches.
With his name recently engraved onto the Manly’s Pathway Of Olympians, the memories of that time remain fresh and personal.
He often to this day still gets emotional reminiscing on what the crew achieved back in 1964 with the odds heavily stacked against them.
“Looking back at 1964, it still gets to me, what we did at that regatta. We really did overcome all odds, and the belief we had truly was something special. It means a lot to myself and my family that my name is recognised."
Both Bill and Pod are now long passed and are today remembered through their families with both Rodney (Bill’s son) and Barbara (Pod’s wife) key in ensuring their stories are passed to on for future generations."
People wanting to see the marvellous vessel that made it all possible - is the “Barranjoey” can today visit the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney’s Pyrmont, where the boat is on display for visitors to see.
With an Olympics around the corner at Enoshima Harbour, there is no doubt there will be tales of Australian crews winning medals after competing against the odds, but it’s unlikely the unusual inspiring story of the 'Barranjoey' will ever be repeated.
“On paper it’s something that never should have worked, but a mixture of a good boat, a short campaign and great desire to win, it just worked” -Dick Sargeant.