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Frank Bethwaite DFC OAM

Frank Bethwaite (1920-2012) was a global innovator and pioneer in sailing design and meteorology.

Born in Wanganui, New Zealand, he learned to sail on the Wanganui River and as a teenager started building his own boats while experimenting with rigs and hull designs.

Bethwaite joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force during WWII and flew bombing raids in the Pacific, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In 1945 he married Adelaide ‘Nel’ Mills and they had four children, Christine, Mark, Nicky and Julian. In 1959 Frank and Nel moved the family to Northbridge in Sydney and they became active members of the Northbridge Sailing Club.

Bethwaite was instrumental in forming the group which designed the Northbridge Senior, a small, light sailing dinghy that made dinghy sailing more accessible to sailors. The NS14 became very popular and is still raced at clubs around Australia’s coastline today. Under his guidance and leadership – and the support and teaching of volunteer club members – hundreds of children learned to sail in the NS14, including many who went on to win world championships.

In 1968 Bethwaite established Starboard Products, a small manufacturing company, inside an old dance hall at Naremburn. It was in this old hall that he experimented with wind flow over sails in a small wind tunnel he created on the premises. Bethwaite’s knowledge of airflow over masts and sails became extraordinary and led to innovative breakthroughs in rig design and performance.

In 1972 Bethwaite assisted at the Kiel Olympics and in 1976 he officially joined the Australian Olympic sailing team as its meteorologist at the Montreal Olympics. It was the research he did for those Games that formed the basis of his book, High Performance Sailing, published in 1992. The book was regarded as world’s best practice and was translated into 12 languages.

In 1975 he designed a new boat called the Tasar, with a minimum weight limit to encourage adults to sail and race competitively. The design was picked up by Performance Sailcraft, the owner of the Laser racing dinghy manufacturing. Tasar manufacturers were established in Canada, the UK, Japan and Australia with the number reaching 3000 worldwide.

Julian, Bethwaite’s younger son, joined him at Starboard Products. The two made a formidable team producing some of the most incredible skiffs the world has seen. In 2000 the business name was changed to Bethwaite Design. In 1995 Julian’s 49er skiff concept came to fruition and with his father’s assistance the boat was developed and eventually selected for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games program – the first Australian to achieve this honour. The 49er remains an integral part of Olympic sailing with its smaller rigged version, the 49erFX, making its debut as the women’s skiff class at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

In 2000 Frank Bethwaite was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to sport.

He went on to write two follow up books to High Performance Sailing: Higher Performance Sailing in 2008 and Fast Handling Technique which was completed shortly before his death and published in January 2013.

Grandson Harry said in his speech at Bethwaite’s funeral; “Frank was the man that was never going to stop, he always had more energy and excitement for life than any of us. Every day it would seem he lived to the fullest and failure was never an option. As he once told me during a trial run in the foiling 49er if it breaks, then we now know how not to do it. This was said as the pinnacle of the sport was trying to be reached with plywood foils with a couple of bits of carbon on it, which was controlled by a cut fishing rod connected to another rod by a Velcro pad. That first trial run was definitely a good learning curve, although afterwards we learnt the importance of linkage slop.”