Australian Geographic

The Darwin Lions Beer Can Regatta

Darwin captured internatio­nal attention 44 years ago with the world’s first regatta for boats made from beer cans. Today, the Top End tradition still draws an eclectic seafaring fleet and would-be naval architects, all keen to claim line honours.


TINNIDEX, LASER, Big Smoke Bottle Boat, Good Glitter, Black Pearl and Duke’s Mob are ready to race and thousands will see them do battle at Mindil Beach. It’s the 2016 Darwin Lions Beer Can Regatta and competitor­s are set to paddle self-built, aluminium-can-clad craft around a one nautical mile course in Darwin Harbour. While thong-throwing, tug-of-war and sandcastle competitio­ns occupy the audience, the regatta’s dedicated crews make minor adjustment­s to their unorthodox vessels – as well as to their outfits and plans to win the coveted Beer Can Cup.

Since the regatta began in 1974, its gold-coin entry fee has raised more than $1.47 million for Northern Territory causes. Worthy projects supported by the funds range from a new ambulance to the non-profit Riding for the Disabled.The regatta is a feel-good event buoyant with fun, camaraderi­e and clever creations.

One local known for his beer-can constructi­ons is Mick Keeley, who has previously won the Superboats Class for his vessels Grogmonsta and Extravacan­z. “Both carried 80-plus people but Extravacan­z was a 30,000can, two-storey catamaran and even had a water cannon,” the non–beer drinking fitter and turner informs me.

Darwin marine technician Paul Rich started with a tri-hull, kayaks and boogie-board boat before building Coke-A-Dile, which claimed a best Soft Drink Boat honour. Then he created Pure Blonde Croc. “They were beauties, but, for me, it’s about involving my kids and seeing families and school kids take part in this iconic event,” he says.

Winning is the drawcard for other competitor­s. “We’ve driven our [5000] plastic wine-bottle craft, Big Smoke Bottle Boat, [almost 5000km] from Sydney to take the trophy off the Territoria­ns,” says Alan Jones.

Although enthusiasm and commitment help with finishing first, success also requires mathematic­s and engineerin­g knowledge, ingenuity and even heroism.

At 3pm, the starter horn blasts and a flurry of aluminium exits the foreshore to begin the race. Lutz Frankenfel­d, aged 74 and the founder and former chairman of the regatta, watches on.

“This event has come a long way,” he says .“In 1973 Swan Brewery approached Paul Rice-Chapman from NT News about staging a sports event in Darwin. He then sought my input and six months later I’d built the world’s first beer-can boat prototype. Dry Ark was made of 780 cans with 25 horsepower on the back. I set up

a course to see what it could do and reached six knots. So we upgraded to 40 horsepower and she flew.”

On 16 June 1974 – six months before Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin – 22,000 people lined Vesteys Beach to watch 60-plus steel-can boats, some with outboards, race in the first Darwin World Cup Beer Can Regatta.

“It was and still is such an original event,” Lutz says. “People picked up cans littered across Darwin, which ignited the first Keep Australia Beautiful campaign, so we cleaned up the city, turned a by-product into boats, created a carnival-atmosphere festival and captured Australia and the world’s imaginatio­n.”

NT News promotions and postcards of regatta masterpiec­es helped spread the word. So too did a fancydress ball and Lutz’s interstate lectures on beer-can boatbuildi­ng. He even included details about constructi­ng a Viking ship commission­ed by the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. Beer-can boats made world headlines but the real buzz was about to unfold.

“Clem Jones, who was the post-Tracy reconstruc­tion chairman appointed by [former prime minister] Gough Whitlam, asked if I could build a beer-can boat that could travel from Darwin to Singapore,” Lutz remembers. “So I did, and on 3 September 1977 Can-tiki set sail with Clem as captain, me as builder-mechanic and Paul Harding navigating by compass and the stars. Internatio­nal media followed our 12-day voyage, which became one of the greatest PR exercises Australia had ever undertaken.”

Lutz says it highlighte­d Darwin’s close proximity to overseas trading partners and showcased the rebuilt city as being open for business.

Committed to the Can-tiki project, Back To Darwin festival and Darwin Rebirth, Lutz invited Darwin’s Lions Clubs to take over the regatta in 1978, when it was moved to Mindil Beach.The other major change came in the mid-’80s when steel cans were replaced by the aluminium variety, which crush at high speeds, leading to the abolition of the powered boat category.

“We’ve seen some extraordin­ary sights over the years and ‘thou shalt compete and have a bloody good time’ has always been one of our 10 Can Mandments,” says William ‘Spud’ Murphy, Lions regatta commentato­r.

Other Can Mandments, he says, include: “‘Thou shalt build thy craft of cans’, which must be drink cans, open, emptied and in more or less original state. Any attempts to enter a submarine [a craft made of full cans] will result in confiscati­on and disposal by the Committee.”

“‘Thy craft shall float by cans alone’ is another CanMandmen­t,” says William, explaining that cans must provide at least 51 per cent of a craft’s flotation. They can be stuck together with anything as long as this rule isn’t broken.The outer hull must also be made of cans, two-thirds of which have to be uncovered and visible.

The finish of the 2016 race is imminent, and William returns to his mic, yelling, “Crikey, folks, Laser has just taken the lead and look at it speed home! ”The Mindil foreshore erupts.

The ecstatic crew from the 2000-beer-can craft launch themselves onto the sand and the boat’s builder, Jeff Ottway, is beaming. “She just flies,” he says. The electrical store worker and his team of co-workers spent 30-plus hours constructi­ng the 3m speedster.“It comes down to design and the correct weight ratio, which is two cans per pound for flotation. She weighs more now though ’cos we took on water,” Jeff says. “But we’re darn proud to win and the trophy’s going on the front counter at work.” Once more the Territoria­ns have held fast to those esteemed beer-can bragging rights.

AUSTRALIAN GEOGRAPHIC thanks Lutz Frankenfel­d and the Lions Club of Darwin for their assistance.

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 ??  ?? The first Darwin Beer Can Regatta poster poster, from 1974 (above). Thong-throwing (right) needs focus when you’re only this high surrounded by a crowd of 16,000.
The first Darwin Beer Can Regatta poster poster, from 1974 (above). Thong-throwing (right) needs focus when you’re only this high surrounded by a crowd of 16,000.
 ??  ?? A vibrant bunch of determined milllennia­ls makes a strong start on board their soft-drink-can craft, Duke’s Mob, during the regatta’s main race.
A vibrant bunch of determined milllennia­ls makes a strong start on board their soft-drink-can craft, Duke’s Mob, during the regatta’s main race.

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