Bill Northam

Athlete Biography

1905 - 1988

When Bill Northam steered his 5.5-metre yacht Barrenjoey across the finish at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, he was 59 years old, a grandfather of five, and suddenly the oldest Australian ever to have won a gold medal. He still owns that title. His victory - achieved with crewmen Peter “Pod” O’Donnell and James Sargeant - was Australia’s first ever in Olympic sailing. Northam was one of sport’s most refreshing characters and at times one of the more garrulous. He heckled his opponents across the water, argued good-naturedly with O’Donnell and Sargeant (accusing them of being mutineers if they argued back), and unsettled his main rival, the American skipper John McNamara, by leading the crew in a chorus of “McNamara’s Band” whenever he spotted him approaching.

Amazingly, Northam’s sailing career did not begin until he was 46 years old. His introduction to the sport came after he bought a waterfront property at Pittwater, Sydney. Taken for an outing by a neighbour, he fared badly at handling the sails but found he had a real aptitude at the helm. He bought a yacht, Saskia, and won the Sayonara Cup twice sailing her. He later sailed in the Sydney-Hobart race and was a member of Sir Frank Packer’s Gretel syndicate for the 1962 America’s Cup. He had the Barrenjoey built in the US. At the Games, Northam’s craft won the first, fourth and sixth events, and became overall winner by finishing fourth in the final event. Of the victory ceremony he remembered: “There had been a lot of celebrating … I had great difficulty standing on the dais.”

Harry Gordon, AOC Historian