Hamilton Island Yacht Club: An Iconic Contender

Bob Oatley and son Sandy filed a challenge for AC35 on behalf of Australia's Hamilton Island YC in late September, on the day the country celebrated the 30th anniversary of Australia II's historic win in the 1983 America's Cup.

Hamilton Island Yacht Club

Hamilton Island Yacht Club

Andrea Francolini

Sporting what is arguably the most magnificent clubhouse of any yacht club in the world, and with a membership of about 25, Australia’s Hamilton Island YC is quite obviously not your average club. HIYC, which has assumed the role of Challenger of Record for the 35th America’s Cup, is privately owned and operated by the Oatley family through a company called Hamilton Island Enterprises. There are no flag officers, no committees, and the commodore is Bob Oatley, owner of the island.

The Oatleys took ownership and management of Hamilton Island 10 years ago and have since transformed it into one of the world's top resort destinations. Situated 900 miles north of Sydney and about 14 miles off of the east coast of Australia in the middle of the Whitsunday Islands,
Hamilton Island has the closest access to the Great Barrier Reef.

The island has become one of Australia's top sailing destinations due largely to the vision of 85-year-old Bob Oatley. The patriarch of the Oatley family—a self-made wine mogul—is himself a keen sailor, and the Oatleys are well respected in top racing circles for their success with the supermaxi Wild Oats XI. Oatley's son Sandy describes his dad's early but enthusiastic entrée to the world of sailing: "Dad started sailing when he was nine or ten in skiffs. His first boat was a canoe that he converted, put a mast on it, and I think he used a sheet as a sail."

The former HIYC was run out of a local pub, but Oatley senior wanted a real clubhouse that would become an iconic landmark and so commissioned Sydney architect Walter Barda for the job. “It was designed so that when you looked at it from space, the roofline would look like a starfish, plus we incorporated sterns, rudders, and such to support a nautical theme,” says Sandy Oatley.

The club is also the aquatic entrance to Hamilton Island, welcoming you when you arrive by boat or land by plane. Operationally, it runs much like a regular yacht club; occasional races during the week serve a small population in and around Hamilton Island, and a couple of major regattas are held annually, including Audi Hamilton Island Race Week.

“There are always people going through the club, whether they are arriving to the island to pick up their boat and go sailing, or stopping in for dinner,” says Iain Murray, the race director for AC34 who was also involved in the construction of HIYC and the renovation of the island following its purchase by Oatley. With his close ties to the Oatleys, it was no surprise when Murray was named Team Australia’s CEO in November.

“Given Australia’s success in the America’s Cup, the Admiral’s Cup, and Olympic yachting, and as proud Australians, we think it is time for our nation to be back in our sport’s pinnacle event.” –Bob Oatley, in a Sept. 30 Statement

The HIYC is also a part sponsor of the Australian Olympic sailing team, which puts perspective around Oatley’s decision to enter the Cup arena. Australia stashed more Olympic golds in sailing in 2012 than any other country, and the team holds its championships at HIYC because of the area’s ideal tidal and wind conditions.

“Our young guys go through the Olympic program, then head off to sail for other countries, like in the America’s Cup,” Sandy Oatley explains. “We’re thinking, ‘We need to have an Australian boat. We’ve got the sailors; we just don’t have a team.’”

This article first appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Sailing World. To view stunning images of Hamilton Island and the yacht club on our sister site, Yachting, click here.