On Christmas Eve 1898, Irene Pritchard became the first woman to race a sailing boat on Sydney Harbour. Skippering the tiny 8-footer (2.4 metre) Zephyr, she took to the front early and won her first race with two minutes to spare.
The Sunday Times reported the day of the race was ‘scarcely an ideal one for a trip on the water, the wind blowing strong and cold from the southward, while it rained pretty continuously throughout the afternoon.’ It said the 8-footers race ‘formed an exciting part of yesterday’s programme owing to the fact that one of the small racers was in charge of a lady, Miss Irene Pritchard. That victory fell to this venturesome young lady, is perhaps not so much to be wondered at as that she would risk a wetting and the possibility of a capsize on such a day as yesterday proved.’ 1
The next month Irene became the first woman to sail a winner in a Sydney regatta – the Anniversary (now Australia Day) Regatta. She only sailed for one season, but in that time her fame spread as far as Britain.
Irene took to the water at the height of the open-boat era, when hugely over-canvassed boats competed for lucrative prizes, and sailing was as popular with the punters as horse racing. Observers crowded the foreshores and followed the races in ferries. Betting on the boats, though not legal, was widespread, and punters avidly followed their favourite skippers.
The open boats pushed the limits. The length was mandated but the beam, depth and sail size were not. In the 1890s there were boats of just about every length, from the 24-footers (7.3 metres), which could carry a crew of up to 20 men, down to the mosquitoes of the fleet, the 6-footers (1.8 metres).
Irene achieved her fame in arguably one of the most absurd boats of the era: her little boat was as wide as it was long. It was reported to carry an 18-foot (5.5-metre) mast, 16-foot (4.9-metre) boom, a 10-foot-6-inch (3.2-metre) gaff and a 10-foot (3-metre) bowsprit.2
Photographs show her dressed in the voluminous blouses and, presumably, the skirts and dresses of the era. How she did not drown when they capsized – and she capsized twice in her six months – is a mystery.
Irene was the only girl in a family of eight children. Her father, at least three brothers, and her eventual husband were all boatbuilders.
Her brother Harry designed and built the small boat she sailed in. Arthur Swinfield, who had done his apprenticeship with Harry, said:
‘While chatting with his father Charles Pritchard, who remarked whether the limit of beam of a sailing boat had been reached, H.C. [Harry] Pritchard made a scale model which so pleased them both that they decided to build it. She was Zephyr, 8ꞌ long and 8ꞌ beam, which was eventually sailed by Irene Pritchard on tiller, H. Pritchard on mainsheet and Fred Pritchard on jib.’3
The Pritchards registered Zephyr with the Johnstone’s Bay Sailing Club (JBSC). This bay lies between Balmain and Pyrmont and today is spanned by the Anzac Bridge.
Irene was elected as the first female member of the club in December 1898. The JSBC was both her local club – Balmain Sailing Club had folded, though it would later form again – and arguably the most innovative club in Sydney at the time, and the most likely to accept a woman as a member.
The club was established to promote class racing and to allow professionals to sail with amateurs. By 1889–90 it had the largest fleet of any club in Australia. The Australian Star reported: ‘The Johnstone’s Bay Club was without a rival in its operations’. The writer argued that, prior to the club’s formation, sailing had been neglected by newspapers. ‘The energetic JBSC officials however soon had the whole of the press in sympathy with the sport, and in this way the newspapers assisted to a great extent in popularising open-boat sailing and bringing it to the position it now occupies in the sporting world … In its day, the club did more for open boat racing than any other existing club can yet claim to have done.’4
The crack skippers of the time – Chris Webb, Tom Colebrook, Billy Read, George Holmes, Billy Golding and George Ellis – all raced with JSBC. It also provided handsome prize money. In December 1898, for the 18-footer championships – one of the star events of the club – the first prize of £10 was won by Chris Webb, possibly one of the greatest sailors to race on Sydney Harbour, in The Australian. For Irene’s first win, Zephyr and its crew won £1 10 shillings, a handy sum when average weekly earnings were £17s.5
Bruce Stannard, in Bluewater Bushmen, argued the open boat sailors had much in common with their country cousins:
‘Their courage and daring, their reckless have-a-go spirit, their rough language, their intense personal loyalty and mateship, their willingness to fight at the drop of a hat, their love of a sporting contest, their hard-drinking and their appetite for gambling all seem to confirm the relationship … They were workers, wharf labourers, miners, boatbuilders, ironworkers, watermen and factory hands … In designing, building and sailing their own ‘working men’s yachts’ they forged the legend of the great open boats that endures today.’6
Perhaps Irene survived in this environment because she was raised with seven brothers, and only sailed with them – and Harry, six years older, might have protected her from the worst – and also because, at the age of 23 she had the maturity to cope with it.
Sailing clubs in the 1890s differed in a number of ways from the clubs of today.
Most did not have clubhouses: they met in local hotels, and sailed from local boatsheds. Nor did they race every weekend. Over the 1898/99 season, JBSC held only five races for 8-footers, but boats could also race with other clubs when the opportunity arose.
The clubs she sailed with all followed the same course for 8-footers: from Goat Island, which lies between the Harbour Bridge (yet to be built in Irene’s racing days) and Balmain, down the harbour and round Shark Island, which lies off Vaucluse, and back to Goat Island.
Irene’s second race was in the Eight-Foot Championship of the Port Jackson Dingy (sic)7 Club, two weeks later on 7 January 1899. Zephyr capsized.
Her third race was in the Anniversary Day Regatta, now known as the Australia Day Regatta, on 26 January 26 1899. Irene became both the first woman to sail in the regatta, and the first to win an Anniversary Day race.
The Sydney Mail reported the room was at the Hotel Australia was crowded for the award night ‘and there was considerable enthusiasm. The prizes were passed over to the several winners and placed boats, and to each the chairman paid well-deserved compliments, but when Miss Irene Pritchard, accompanied by her brother, came forward, there were loud applause and hearty cheers. [Regatta Chairman] Dr Burne explained that this was the first time a lady had sailed a winner at Anniversary Regatta, or at any other regatta held in Sydney. In addition to the prize money the committee awarded a handsome gold medal to the young lady.’8
The next month, Irene raced with the Sydney Dingey (sic) Club. The Sydney Mail reported: ‘The now famous Zephyr, with her young lady skipper, Miss Pritchard, again distinguished herself, and sailing through the fleet was ahead of affairs before Shark Island was reached.’ She increased her lead, to win first prize of £1 10s.9
The following Saturday, 12 February 1899, Irene again raced again with JBSC. Her handicap, which was five minutes in her first race, had understandably been pulled back to scratch. Zephyr came second, possibly because of the tactics of the third-placed boat, which was disqualified after Zephyr protested.
Irene capsized in her next race, with the Port Jackson Dingy Sailing Club.
The JBSC held its club championships for 18-, 10- and 8-footers on 25 February 1899. Chris Webb in The Australian was again victorious in the 18-footers. He always attracted an enthusiastic following and it is possible Irene received some of his reflected glory.
According to the Evening News:
‘in the 8-footers’ contest, which was the “blue ribbon” event of the “midgets”, Zephyr scored an easy victory. The champion 8-footer, which is 8ft broad as well, was again faultlessly handled by Miss Irene Pritchard, who may well be congratulated on her prowess.’ 10
Irene came in a full six minutes ahead of the second place getter, winning £2 and the club championship.
In the last race of the season with JBSC, Zephyr came fourth, and was so late to the start in the last race with the Sydney Dingey club in March that it did not place. But the season ended on a high. Irene was presented with the Champion Pennant of the eight-foot class by JBSC, and acknowledged as a big prizewinner by the Sydney Dingey Club.
Irene also received an invitation to sail in the Newcastle and Stockton Sailing Club’s handicap on March 25. The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate reported the move, and predicted her appearance would attract considerable attention: ‘Miss Irene Pritchard, the champion lady “yachts man” in her eight-footer, The Zephyr has kindly consented to take part in the carnival. This should alone be a big draw, especially for the ladies, to see one of their own sex at the tiller of her tiny craft.’11
The Brisbane-based Telegraph reported that Irene was ‘accorded a great reception by the northern sailing men. Many hundreds of spectators lined the various wharves, and with those on board the steamers following the racing heartily cheered the fair skipper as she sailed by. The lack of wind prevented the races from finishing, but Zephyr had a strong lead, and would probably have won her race if the dingeys had been able to complete the course.’12
In an article titled ‘Yachting in Sydney’, the March edition of the London-based Yachting Monthly Magazine reported that Irene Pritchard ‘is the “dinghy” topic in boating circles’. The next month the magazine printed a photo of Zephyr winning the Anniversary Regatta and reproduced the plans for the boat, as well as an article on Irene, titled ‘One Beam to Length’:
‘Zephyr is the only boat 8ft. long ever raced in Port Jackson and sailed by a lady. In six races, early in the season, Miss Irene Pritchard, with her two brothers as crew, won four first prizes and one second, the other event being “a swim” … Zephyr’s best point is reaching, when she is said to be almost as fast as the 10ft. class… The exceptional speed shown by such a boat 8ft. by 8ft., and the fact of its successful handling by a young lady who had never before sailed in a racing boat, have, needless to say, excited considerable curiosity in that part of the world, and we should add that at the public distribution the prizes won at the recent Anniversary Regatta, Miss Irene Pritchard was presented with an additional and special gold medal for the skillful handling of the 8ft. dinghy Zephyr, and also for being “the first lady skipper in Australia”. The prizes were presented by the regatta committee at an evening meeting in the presence of a large and very enthusiastic audience.’13
In October 1899 Irene was featured in an illustration and article in the Australian Town and Country Journal. She was in esteemed company: Mr F W J Donovan was Chairman of the Sydney Sailing Council and commodore of the Johnstone’s Bay Sailing Club; Mr C B Hunter was Vice Commodore of the Sydney Sailing Club; Sam Hordern junior, in his half-rater Bronzewing VI, had a record in the previous season of eight first and three third places out of 18 starts; and Mark Foy was the man who revolutionised sailing on Sydney Harbour.
The paragraph on Irene read:
‘Miss Pritchard, daughter of Mr. H.C. Pritchard, of Leichhardt, is the skipper of the champion dingey Zephyr, whose splendid record bears testimony to this fair young yachtswoman’s skill and success. It is difficult to understand why yacht racing as a pastime for ladies has not become more popular here. In England, the fair sex largely own and sail their own boats, and some clubs even go so far as to have a ladies’ day. Women affect many things for which they are physically unsuited, and in which they have no possible chance to excel, or even equal, the average man, such as golf, bicycling, and other athletic exercises which afford them nothing in the way of success to compensate for the avidity and perseverance with which they pursue these exercises. But sailing is a pursuit most fascinating, varied, and exciting, in which they can become absolutely proficient, requiring no particular muscular effort or physical strength, only quickness of judgment, and a knowledge, which can be acquired by practice and the opportunity. So any woman wishing to shine in a delightful little world of her own would do well to emulate Miss Pritchard.’14
Irene was not the only prize-winning lady skipper. The year before, in England, Mark Foy’s Irex, a Sydney 22-footer, was soundly beaten by the Maid of Kent in a series of three races on the Medway. The Maid’s skipper was Maud Wylie. The previous season Mrs Wylie had raced the Pensée Fugitive. The Australasian reported: ‘The Fugitive’s record, as her fair owner laughingly described the other day, was “six starts, four firsts, one second, and one capsize.’” It’s a record startlingly similar to Irene’s.15
Irene next skippered the 10-footer Procella, which was also designed and built by her brother Harry. This also had a 10-foot beam, and provoked a lot of interest, much of it unfavourable.
In the first 10-footer race of the 1899/1900 season, held by JBSC, Procella did not place. The Australian Town and Country Journal commented: ‘I saw the monstrosity [Procella] going down the harbor last Saturday, and in some of the squalls her big ballooner seemed to make her fly. But on a wind she does not seem to be a wonder.’16
Irene Pritchard again made history when, on 7 November 1899, she was the first woman to compete in the Balmain Regatta, in Procella. She did not place.
The fleet of 10-footers gathered for the JBSC 10ft championship on November 18, 1899. The Referee reported: ‘Miss Pritchard’s charge made a fine bid for the race on the run down the harbor, and was the first to haul wind round the buoy. But this oddity was no match for her big rivals on the thrash back, as one after another they displaced her.’17
Her position was not recorded.
And that appears to be Irene Pritchard’s last race. By all accounts Procella was an unusual boat, and one that was difficult to handle, carrying a huge area of sail. Later that year, the Evening News reported that Procella had been debarred, and had to be altered to comply with the rules.18 It is likely that the debarring ended Irene’s sailing career.
Not until the 1960s would another woman take the tiller and race in an open boat on Sydney Harbour19. Irene’s sailing career might have ended, but her reputation grew, and she remained closely associated with sailing – and boatbuilding – for the rest of her life.
In 1904 Irene married boatbuilder Fred Carnaby. According to the book Asteroids on the Swan, when Irene’s brother Arthur (also a boatbuilder) showed Fred Carnaby the photo of Irene wearing her gold medal, Fred said, ‘She’s the girl for me!’20
Irene and Fred moved to Nedlands, Western Australia, pioneering an area that was then on the southern outskirts of Perth, on the Swan River. They first lived in a houseboat while building their boatshed, then lived in the boatshed and built the family home behind it. Irene seemed destined to be surrounded by males, and had six sons – Eric, Ivan, Keith, Cecil, Colin and Trevor.
Carnaby’s Boatshed thrived. Fred constructed motor launches, yachts, luggers, pearling schooners and at least one ferry. He also built 16 Star class yachts, 22-footers with open cockpits, from the local jarrah. He rented them out, introducing many people to sailing on the Swan River.
Irene Carnaby, née Pritchard, died in Perth in 1953. In 2015 Balmain Sailing Club awarded a trophy named in her honour, given to the top woman skipper in the Balmain Regatta. Vanessa Dudley was a fitting winner: in 1986, she had been the first woman to win a race at the helm of an 18-footer.
— Åsa Wahlquist is a Walkley-award winning rural journalist and author. Since retiring she has written a book about Snails Bay Sabot Sailing Club, and is researching the history of sailing in Balmain.
The author wishes to thank Anthea Harris from the Nedlands Library, Western Australia, for her assistance.
This article originally appeared in Signals 117 (December 2016). Uncover more maritime history and stories in our quarterly magazine Signals.
1 Sunday Times, 25 December 1898, p 3
2 Australian Wooden Boats, Volume one, edited by Trish Murphy, published by the Wooden Boat Association of NSW, 1993, p 59
4 Australian Star, 11 November 1904, p 5
5 https://www.measuringworth.com/datasets/auswages/result.php# accessed 10/10/2016
6 Bluewater Bushmen by Bruce Stannard, The Heritage Press, 2004, p 2
7 Dinghy was also spelled dingy and dingey.
8 Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser, 11 February 1899, p 350 [correct? Seems a large page number for a newspaper]
10 Evening News, 27 February 1899, p 2
11 Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 13 March 1899, p 3
12 The Telegraph, 1 April 1899, p 6
13 Yachting Monthly Magazine, 13 April 1899, p 194
14 Australian Town and Country Journal, 4 March 1899 p 24
15 Australasian, 24 September 1898, p 19
16 Australian Town and Country Journal, 4 November 1899, p 53
17 Referee, 22 November 1899, p 4
18 Evening News, 18 October 1900, p 2
19 New Zealander Bev Coles, sailing her own boat in the 1966/67 season, seems to have been the first female skipper in an 18-footer, which were in the tradition of the old open boats. In June 1973 Seacraft reported the first all-female 18-footer crew at the Sydney Flying Squadron, in Moygashel.
20 Asteroids on the Swan, compiled by M R Clarke, Educational Publishers, 1993, p 30
Newspaper articles accessed through Trove.