'A lot of people think I’m mad.'
It’s a candid admission from someone who, on the surface, seems perfectly sane. Owen Vale is a husband, a father-of-two, a popular teacher, a rugby coach and the kind of guy who’s always willing to help out a mate. No trace of madness there. But then, as they say, still waters run deep, and for people with a passion – a true, unshakable, to the core of your balls passion – those waters run very deep indeed.
As it happens, Owen’s passion is inextricably linked to water: ‘I went to primary school in Newcastle/Lake Macquarie, and in about Year 4 my two best mates, whose dads were both sailors, went sailing in summer. I didn’t know anything about it – for me, summer was cricket – but they were my two best mates and I wanted to give it a go. Mum and Dad knew someone who had a sailing boat and asked if he could take me out one day. And I was pretty much hooked from then.’
Owen’s love of sailing was boosted by the fact that, as he was growing up, it was a mainstream sport, attracting big sponsorship bucks and, crucially, TV coverage. And leading the charge were the 18-foot skiffs.
Long an important part of Sydney history, with races held on the harbour every Saturday and Sunday during summer, the 18-footers suddenly became national icons – the glamour girls of the boating world – thanks to Aussie entrepreneur Bill McCartney’s Grand Prix Sailing circuit. Races were held all around the country, from Rottnest Island to Hamilton Island, and were televised on Channel 9 during the cricket lunch break.
‘Audiences loved it,’ recalls Owen. ‘They were really fast boats, there were crashes, there were spills, they were way ahead of their time because they developed cameras in helmets and on-board live feeds.’ But then?
‘The arse fell out of it with the Sydney Olympics, because they’d just developed this new mini-skiff called the 49er, which was the new high-performance boat for the Olympics and a lot of the 18-foot sailors had a massive head start [in sailing the boat] and went chasing Olympic gold. So a little bit of the energy fell out of it, and then at the last minute, Channel 9 pulled the pin and said, “Instead of the sailing, we’re going to run this thing called the Cricket Show.”’
With the TV money gone, 18-foot sailing became a strictly amateur sport again – fun to participate in, but without the buzz. Not only that, but all the boats used for ‘official’ races (those held by Double Bay 18 Foot Skiff Club) are all built to the same design, leading to a certain predictability in performance and price. At least, that was the case until Owen decided to ruffle a few feathers and build his own 18-footer – to a Grand Prix Sailing-era design.
Like any great quest, Owen’s DIY project was started by a rumour – of a barely begun shell of an 18-footer that existed somewhere up in Newcastle and hadn’t been touched in 14 years. ‘I was sailing with some mates from Newcastle in the national 16-foot skiff titles and they said, “Yeah, it exists”.’ It turns out sailing legend Chris Nicholson had it in his Redhead sailing shed, and he was happy to see someone finally build the boat.
So Owen set about building a Grand Prix boat with full modern technology. ‘I’ve done it the way a home builder would have to approach building an 18-foot skiff. If you were doing it for a living, you would buy pre-preg carbon fibre, which has resin already infused in it. It goes into a mould and then is vacuum bagged to tighten it in. Then it goes in an oven at about 100 degrees and it cures. So you can knock out a boat in a few weeks.
‘But I did what’s called a wet lay-up, which is a lot messier. You can achieve just as good a job, but it’s a bit trickier. It involves wetting out all the carbon fibre by hand with resin. I would make panels of the material for the boat in big plastic bags and have to squeegee the resin into the carbon fibre, stick the foam on, then do the other layer of carbon fibre, then add peel ply, which is just a bleeder layer, and put it all in the big bag and put the pressure on it with a vacuum pump to bleed excess resin out so you get a lighter job and the optimal balance of resin to fibre.’
Not just any vacuum pump, mind: ‘Rather than spending three and a half grand on a vacuum pump, I got a mate to build one out of a fridge compressor.’ Which is either ingenuity at its best or the sign of a serious tight arse. But given how Owen managed to fund the bulk of the project, we’ll opt for the former.
‘I got in touch with Ella Baché, who were a big sponsor of the skiffs during the Grand Prix days. I spoke to John Hallas, who owns Ella Baché, and said, “Here’s the project”, and he said, “Mate, I love it – I’m in: we’ll support you along the way.”’ Help came from other quarters, too, particularly the man Owen calls his ‘mentor’, renowned boat builder Denis Philips. ‘Denis is just the best guy, so generous with his wisdom and support – the kind of bloke you wished you were related to. I’d just ring him up and even though he’s semi-retired these days he’d say, “How can I help?”.’
It took Owen about two years – ‘doing little bits here and there’ – to build the Ella Baché, with its distinctive colour scheme and iconic shark-mouth bow. And thanks to his hard work and the support of Ella Baché, Denis Philips and others, he gets to sail it every weekend for about a third of the price of a new boat.
‘I absolutely idolised the 18-footers when they were on TV, and to say that I could have my own 18-foot skiff and to have built it myself – it’s insane.’
Well, maybe a little...