World and European Championship-winning professional navigator, Tom Cheney, gives his advice on how to win the Rolex Sydney Hobart race
The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race stands as a pinnacle of offshore yacht racing. Its reputation as the hardest of the classic offshore races is well deserved. Compared to the northern hemisphere 600-milers, for example the Fastnet and Middle Sea Races, the 628-mile Sydney Hobart is much more remote. Once out of Sydney Harbour, you quickly lose mobile phone signal and are left feeling isolated from the rest of the world, something which feels quite alien to most of us in 2023.
The New South Wales coast offers relatively few safe havens should you need to retire from the race, though this is nothing compared to the sense of exposure sailing in the Bass Strait. A fetch of thousands of miles of Southern Ocean and chilling sea temperatures create some of the most challenging conditions that many of us will ever experience. It’s easy to see why this race has significantly stricter safety regulations than its northern hemisphere equivalents.
Exiting the Heads
The race begins with a true spectacle in Sydney Harbour, where hundreds of Australians gather to watch the start in a now well-established Boxing Day tradition. Television news helicopters, a packed spectator fleet and some key exclusion zones add to the excitement as you make your way out of the iconic Sydney Heads. Unlike many other big races the whole fleet starts at the same time, but spread across three staggered start lines. In order to make the race the same 628-mile length for everyone, the first two turning marks differ depending on your starting group (an extra complexity for the navigator!).
Typically the fleet starts in a north-easterly breeze, which means a fairly square beat to the first mark. The separate starting areas do help to ease the traffic a little for the smaller boats, but keeping a clean lane is paramount as you bounce off the marked spectator boundaries. After mark one, reaching for just over a mile out through the Heads can be a tussle, with plenty of boats still in close proximity. Sea state builds as you leave the harbour and there’s not long to prepare for what is usually (initially) a VMG downwind leg down the New South Wales coast.
New South Wales coast
After the excitement of leaving Sydney Harbour, navigators now encounter their first major decision point: choosing the route south through the East Australian Current (EAC) and anticipating any cold fronts that may be moving north-east up the course.
The EAC is a surface current driven by winds over the South Pacific. Usually it is south-flowing between Sydney and Bass Strait with large gyres and meandering eddies. The flow of the EAC is ever changing, but luckily there are some good models and observations that can help you pick your way south. For routing the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has a seven-day forecast called OceanMAPS and there is also a four-hour sea surface temperature observation from IMOS which gives you a good idea of where the eddies are relative to the forecast.
The trick is to pick a couple of waypoints where you think the best current is going to be and then try to connect the dots. Weighing up your best shot at positive current against positioning for a front/shift is the big challenge here. As you get further south towards the entrance to the strait, you also need to consider the considerable wind bend as the prevailing westerly wind wraps around the south coast.
The Bass Strait is notorious for its rough seas and volatile weather. If there’s a cold front moving north and east then pleasant, fast downwind conditions can turn into hard, cold upwind conditions very quickly. A big change in wind direction like this often means a potentially boat-breaking confused sea state. The strait can serve up some of the most challenging conditions in ocean racing, with strong westerly winds known as the ‘Roaring Forties’.
Anticipating a big change in conditions like this, and being appropriately prepared, are an absolute necessity for every boat in the race. The ECMWF and GFS global models can be used to track the big picture weather systems and for running weather routing. There is also an Australian ACCESS model, based on the UK Met Office’s Unified Model. This is not so easy to get hold of, but for those taking the race very seriously, the legendary forecaster Roger ‘Clouds’ Badham provides some GRIB file downloads to teams he is forecasting for.
Approaching Tasmania the race enters its tactical endgame. The coastline offers shelter and potential wind shadows, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Choosing when to head offshore for wind or inshore for shelter is often the key to this stage.
Weather in the aptly named Storm Bay can be very unpredictable. The area can be becalmed, leaving yachts stranded for hours, or it can be struck by sudden storms, particularly in the afternoon when the heat from the land can generate strong sea breezes or thunderstorms.
The fetch across the bay can build up substantial waves and the wind can accelerate around the Tasman Peninsula, creating gusty and unstable conditions.
Some of these local features are not captured by typical weather models, so keep an eye on observations and any competitors you can see ahead of you on AIS. There are some high resolution WRF weather models for Hobart available through Nick White’s Expedition navigation software that do a good job of modelling some of these local effects.
The final approach to Hobart is up the Derwent River, where winds can be fickle, and many a lead has been lost in these final miles. If you’re lucky then you might finish in a nice afternoon sea breeze, those less fortunate can be becalmed for hours, particularly when finishing at night or in the early hours.
Race like no other
Finishing the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race is a significant achievement in itself and the reception all boats receive is unlike anywhere else. Whatever time of day, finishing teams are greeted by a cheering crowd at Constitution Dock and the Elizabeth St Pier. It’s also pretty much mandatory to stop at the Customs House pub for a debrief and to exchange stories from the great race.
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