We are sorry to report that recently, the YMCA community lost Ralph Westen. A great man who played a fundamental role in founding, developing and supporting YMCA Canberra’s Sailing Club.

For those of you who didn’t know Ralph, he was a man of many great traits and accomplishments – from being an original co-founder of the club; contributive club and boathouse designer; committee member; club commodore; race starter; to keen photographer and contributed to the club’s newsletter for many years. More importantly though, he was an adoring husband to his lovely wife Billie, a fellow committee member, club contributor and life member. He is remembered as a cheeky, kind and outgoing man, with a great sense of humour.  He was also even a keen gemologist in his later retirement years!

To establish a better idea of who this outstanding man was and the true impact that he had on our local community, we spoke to Ralph’s fellow club colleague and long-term friend, Ron Thompson.

Tell us about how you came to know Ralph, and how he contributed to YMCA Canberra’s Sailing Club over the years

First and foremost, Ralph was one of the two founders of the Sailing Club. As he, his wife Billie (a long time manager of YMCA Civic) and a few other keen skiers who were at the then YMCA Thredbo Ski Lodge were talking about Lake Burley Griffin being filled – they thought ‘why don’t we start a sailing club?’ Ralph and another gentleman called Val Parel then started the YMCA sailing club. The Y Board were very happy to have a sailing club as part of their community. Sailing with the club originally started on Lake George, then Lotus Bay and eventually moving to where the club resides now, on Yarralumla Bay, Lake Burley Griffin once the lake filled… That’s how it all started! In fact, Ralph had the first sailing boat on the Lake as it was filling with water! He showed me photos of his boat sitting on the Lake before it was even full.

“Ralph was also instrumental in the building of the club house. From the plans to the design, to selecting land, (to eventually) getting approval to build the club on Yarralumla Bay. Even down to the finest details like selected timbers and painting everything that you see today, Ralph was involved in all of it… A number of years later, he was equally as involved in the design and building of the boatshed.

“Ralph was a past Commodore of the club, he and his wife Billie often sailed and they started the club newsletter Mains’l, of which Billie was the editor for many years. Ralph provided a lot of photographs for these publications, being a very keen photographer.

The YMCA sailing club originally started & finished all the races from an old caravan parked on the shore at the mouth of the bay. The racing starting boat that the club has used for many years was purchased and named Westen after Ralph and Billie. Ralph started and finished races for many years before retiring from the sport. In the early days, races were started with a shotgun & Ralph was fondly remembered for blowing a hole in the start number board one day when he accidentally discharged the gun in the wrong direction”

I first met Ralph in 1984, when I started sailing in Canberra. Then, when I became commodore of the club, about 12 years ago, I got to know Ralph even more with lengthy discussions around how the club was formed & grown. Ralph & Billie became life members of the club & in later years I used to take him and Billie along to presentation nights.

“When Ralph and Billie moved into their retirement home, I visited them to chat and had regular phone conversations about sailing, the club and life in general. We ended up being very good friends over many years.”

How would you describe Ralph personally and how he uniquely impacted the club and the members throughout the years?

He just had that type of personality where he could make people laugh, engage with everyone easily and make anyone feel involved…”

“With his interest in sailing and always wanting the best things for the club, he was consistently impactful. It was part of him… He has influenced many, many people throughout the years and always in a positive way.”

While there is no way to summarise Ralph’s life and what he truly meant to the Sailing Club,  we think Ron probably put it best in saying, “He was simply a really nice person, who will be missed by the people who knew him.”

Our thoughts are with his wife Billie, loved ones and friends during this difficult time. He will be remembered fondly by us here at the Y.