Celebrating Women on and off the Water at Manly Skiffs

 In Manly 16ft Skiff Sailing Club

One of Marita Wilmot’s fondest memories of sailing at the Manly 16ft Skiff Club is making the men wait for their post-race shower. “There were no facilities for women so my father used to make all the crew wait outside the showers,” she recalled with a laugh.

“He would stand guard to make sure all the guys stayed outside until I’d showered and got changed. “I would come out to this huge line of guys standing around in towels. “I’d say ‘guys, if you’ve got any complaints tell the club to put in a women’s shower and then you won’t have to whinge’.

“No one messed with my dad.” They certainly didn’t.

Marita’s dad Jack Tier is a notable figure in the club’s 100-year history, owning and sailing boats as well as serving as publicity officer. When he wasn’t on the water, Jack was busy editing the afternoon Sun newspaper, which was then in a ferocious circulation war with the Murdoch-owned Mirror.

He was also something of a pioneer as far as encouraging females to sail at Manly, using 11-year-old Marita as his prototype. She was the first female to race competitively in a 16, crewing aboard Skua in 1969 alongside older brothers Tony and Bernie.

Marita kept sailing long after her father died tragically from a heart attack at just 57.  She was followed by fellow trailblazers Shirley Lockitt, Kaye Coote in the 70s, Christina Perry, Nicky Souter in the 90s and Clare Hozack in 2003.

Marita was too young to realise what she was doing at the time was ground-breaking, but now looks back with a great sense of pride. “I’d like to think I did play a part in the history of it all because after me I know they did change things at Manly and made provisions for women,” she said.

“It’s taken a long time to get to where we are and I know other women had their challenges, but I’ve got to say I always found acceptance. “I was always felt I was respected for my ability rather than the fact I was a female “I guess it helped to have Dad there but I think it was also the fact that I’d be sailing a lot longer than some of the men had. “Hopefully the girls from that time inspired the ones that came after us.” Both Marita’s daughters followed her into sailing and her son, Nathan Wilmot, is an Olympic gold medallist and current national 16s champion.

Fiona Harris (nee Walker) was another to follow in the pioneers’ wake. She started in a 13-footer and loved it from the outset, despite some early physical damage. “I used to get these big, black bruises up my arms from pulling myself back into the boat,” she laughed. “I think I swam for my first two seasons. But I had so much fun and met so many great people.” And so began a lifetime love affair with the sport and the Manly club, which began almost two decades ago. “I think the support from the club to help me purchase a 13 and the fact that it looked like fun helped me a great deal and I just loved being down at Manly,” Fiona said. “The club was very supportive and made it happen.”

Fiona met her future husband and accomplished 16s sailors Jay Harris while competing in the 13s, but admits it was far from love at first sight. “We used to race against each other after starting the same year and I was probably pretty mean to him back then,” she smiled. “He was always at the front of the pack and I was always upside down for the first two years.” Now the couple has two sailing daughters – Bella (11) and Rose (9) competing in the MJs  – and have thrown themselves into helping the next generation. Fiona explained, “To be able to actually help them and be able to jump in the Manly Jr with them and sail it with them or coach them, it’s actually blown my mind. “I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I am.”

Overall, 63 women have signed on to sail at Manly in the past century, with a record 11 registered in the skiff classes this year. We also have our first female life member – the amazing and tireless Tina Armour – and current 16s fleet skipper Jessica Iles is the first female vice-commodore in club history. For the first time, the pioneers and those who have followed will be celebrated next month when the club hosts Ladies Day (January 10) on the deck during the Australian 13ft and 16ft Championships.

The competing female sailors will conduct a fly-past on their way to the start-line as Ladies Day continues into the afternoon.

Words Adam Lucius

Photo SailMedia

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Manly 16ft Skiff Sailing Club