Getting wind of a pioneer

September 16, 2015

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WHEN Balmain Sailing Club first called for information about Balmain’s first female sailor, Irene Pritchard, it only had a photo of her in her boat Zephyr and a couple of lines of information.

Now, thanks to local sailors and history sleuths, the club has found a picture of
Pritchard wearing a medal for winning Sydney’s Anniversary Day Regatta and has fleshed out her life story.

The club has named this year’s Balmain Regatta on October 25 in Pritchard’s honour in a celebration of women’s sailing.

In 1898, Pritchard became the first female sailor to register with the Balmain area’s only active sailing club, Johnstone’s Bay. She came from a local boatbuilding family and, as skipper of 8ft skiff Zephyr, forged a formidable reputation.

Her brother HC, or Harry, built Zephyr and crewed it together with brother Fred.

The 2.4m boat was as wide as it was long and, like all the open skiffs of the day, it had a huge sail, a 5.5m-tall mast, a 4.9m boom and a 3m bowsprit.

In 11 starts, Pritchard won nine, including the 8ft race at the prestigious Anniversary Day regatta.

The Anniversary Day crowd cheered when she was presented with her medal, and the event’s chair man, Dr Burne, said that was the first time a lady had sailed a winner at any regatta held in Sydney. Pritchard is believed to be the first woman to skipper a racing skiff on Sydney Harbour.

The following season, she skippered the 10ft Procella, which was also built by Harry. She was not as successful in Procella, perhaps because of Harry’s experimental design and the huge sail it carried. 

Pritchard skippered Procella in the 1899 Balmain Regatta, the first woman to compete in it.

By 1900, she had quit sailing. In 1904, she married boat builder Fred Carnaby and the couple moved to Nedlands, south of Perth, which was then bushland. The family was well-known for their boat business, which continued into the 1950s.  Pritchard had six sons, one of whom was a naturalist, and after whom Carnaby’s black cockatoo is named. Pritchard died in1953.

Balmain Sailing Club commodore Campbell Reid said it was wonderful to put a face and a life story to a true Balmain pioneer.

“Knowing more about Irene adds to the significance of her achievements and it is a great honour to name this year’s regatta for her, ” Mr Reid said.

The Irene Pritchard edition of the Balmain Regatta will be held at the club’s premises on Water St with an onshore picnic, music and celebration.

“As always, we invite Balmain to join us either as competitors or partygoers,” Mr Reid said.

Inner West Courier

Proud Sponsors of the Balmain Sailing Club