The smallest yacht in the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race was a restored 1932 classic from Australia. Crosbie Lorimer finds out more about Maluka
One thing you should do is take your watch off. If you start looking at your watch you’re going to do your head in!” said Sean Langman, owner and skipper of the diminutive 91-year-old Maluka. He’d been asked, just days prior to competing in the 50th edition of the Rolex Fastnet Race, how best to approach an ocean race in a boat of this nature.
Langman, who still races Sydney Harbour 18ft Skiffs and has competed in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race in supermaxis, knows better than most the importance of changing mindset when switching from super fast grand prix yachts to a gaff-rigged classic.
“The goal is to just keep her trundling along. Don’t try and sail too high, just keep getting water under the keel and staying on a making leg,” he says about racing Maluka, which typically sails at much the same speed upwind as downwind.
As the smallest yacht in the 2023 race at 30ft (9.01m) – and indeed the oldest boat to complete this famous ocean race – Maluka boxed well above her weight, dealing handsomely under two reefs and a staysail with the first day’s brutal upwind conditions and going on to win IRC Division 4B.
Maluka’s pace is modest at best, and when Langman answered a journalist’s question some years ago on how she’d sail when up against a super maxi like Wild Oats XI, he answered: “We can go about five to six knots into the wind, whereas a boat like Wild Oats XI may do 10 or 11 knots. With the wind behind us we may still do about five knots, yet they may be doing 25 knots!”
Maluka was built in 1932 for the Clark brothers, wealthy graziers from New South Wales, who used her to cruise Australian waters extensively. They enjoyed many adventures, including a successful voyage from Sydney to Hobart (after an earlier attempt saw them being blown onto rocks), some 10 years before that challenging passage became today’s renowned race.
An emotional attachment
The yacht was conceptualised by amateur yacht designer Cliff Gale, assisted by naval architect AC ‘Archie’ Barber. He was also the designer of Rani, the first winner of the Sydney Hobart race in 1945, and ‘the unsung hero of Australian yacht design’, according to Langman.
Maluka’s distinctive raised deck design and robust construction in Tasmanian Huon pine led to a series of similar designs during the 1930s, collectively known as the Ranger class. A number of these still race regularly on Sydney Harbour.
For Langman there is a strong emotional tie to this class, as his father owned a Ranger called Vagrant, built a year after Maluka, which he sold when Langman was 12.
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“I cried for a month and said I’d get it back one day,” said Langman. At the age of 30 he did just that, and restored her to her former glory. Vagrant still sits on a mooring off Langman’s Noakes Boatyard in Sydney.
“I look at her and say to myself: that’s all I really need. The other 37 boats I’ve had probably were a mistake!”, says Langman with a laugh.
Maluka was in a sorry state when Langman purchased her in 2005, subsequently restoring her from top to bottom with the team at his yard, over an estimated 10,000 hours.
The planking and decking were kept and reused, but to meet the stringent American Bureau of Shipping scantlings that Langman wanted to achieve for racing the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race, he tasked renowned naval architect Andy Dovell with the required engineering.
The cockpit was too large and deep, so the raised deck was extended one frame further aft and the cockpit sole was raised, resulting in one unplanned upside,
“It opened up these massive aft bunks – just glorious” says Langman with a big smile. “It’s now got a 9ft long quarter berth with a very thick cushion. And I bought new pillows!
“The rule actually pushed the boat into a place to make it much better. She’s a little truck now, she’s very strong.”
Langman’s commitment to the traditions of classic yacht building is also matched by a practical approach to the use of contemporary design elements which make the boat more user-friendly and comfortable to race.
Notable among these additions is the recent replacement of the boat’s engine with a lighter and smaller Nanni 3.8 diesel engine. The mainsail sheet now has a winch pedestal, while the sails and rigging have been redesigned to allow a more effective combination of headsail and spinnakers. A babystay allows her to be sailed triple-headed.
The Doyles/McDiarmid sail wardrobe is modern in its intent too, with three downwind sails comprised of a Code 0, an asymmetrical and symmetrical spinnaker. Headsails include a yankee, working jib set on the end of the bowsprit, staysail and storm jib.
Although none of these contemporary additions seem to impinge in any way on Maluka’s classic looks, there are some aspects of a boat of this vintage that simply can’t be updated.
“You know you’re sailing when you’ve got to put a block and tackle on the tiller to change direction in heavier airs. not because it’s got weather helm, but because there’s no balance in the rudder,” says Langman.
With the exception of the necessary modern navigational equipment and instruments, Maluka’s interior retains its original character too. Traditional lanterns, a brass-cased barometer, hardwood timber cabinets, various race winning plaques, a white-painted, planked timber deckhead and round portholes all lend Maluka’s cabin the air of a reassuring and cosy retreat when the conditions get challenging on deck.
The only practical way for Maluka to be transported to Europe for the Rolex Fastnet Race was aboard a ship that was carrying two New Zealand Navy vessels being sold to the Irish government and delivered to Cork. The result was that Maluka sailed a large part of the Fastnet Race course in reverse to reach the Solent from the south coast of Ireland a week before the race.
Langman said they drew a number of helpful lessons from that journey, but the most significant learning for the skipper was: “It’s perfect for small draughted boats in this part of the world. There are many beautiful rivers and they all have beautiful English pubs. I’ve had a great time!”
A cruise to Iceland is also on the cards. So it’ll be a while before Maluka is back in Australian waters.
When asked why, having competed in fast yachts for years, he has returned to racing a classic yacht, Langman turns philosophical for a moment.
“I think a lot of what it’s about is the inner child. It’s where you started and for me this is where I cut my teeth, sailing these boats with my dad. It’s gold! Pure joy, that’s what it’s about.”
The history of Maluka
Maluka was built in 1932 for bachelor brothers, William and George Clark, who wanted to enjoy their retirement from farming. After first using her to potter and fish round Sydney Harbour they started to plan more adventurous cruises. One early photo shows her in an idyllic anchorage up the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney.
In 1933, they spent five months sailing to North Queensland, encountering heavy weather that proved Maluka’s seaworthiness and gave them confidence to go even further. So in 1934 they sailed to the remote Lord Howe island in the Tasman Sea.
Their third voyage didn’t go well. While sailing south of Eden after Christmas in 1935, they encountered a southerly gale. The three crew hove to for days, eventually lashing the tiller so they could go below and rest.
What they didn’t realise is that the strong current had been sweeping them south along the coast of Victoria and in the early hours they grounded off Cape Conran.
A series of waves pushed them higher over the rocks until Maluka came to rest, high and dry, on her starboard side, clear of the waves and with relatively little damage.
LOA: 9.01m / 30ft 0in
Beam: 3.18m / 10ft 5in
Draught: 1.71m / 5ft 7in
Mast height: 9.10m / 30ft
Displacement: 7.5t / 16,535lb
Mainsail: 46m2 / 495ft2
Downwind sail area: 130m2 / 1,400ft2
Upwind sail area: 69m2 / 742ft2
IRC Rating: 0.868
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