The 75th Rolex Sydney Hobart Race was a mentally taxing affair for all competitors in this anniversary year of the offshore classic, reports Crosbie Lorimer
Had any of the crew of the nine yachts that finished the inaugural Sydney Hobart Yacht Race in 1945 been able to comment on the race’s 75th edition, the phrase ‘walk in the park’ would probably have featured, such was the contrast in weather, and time spent at sea, between the first and most recent editions of this ocean racing classic.
The 628-mile ‘Hobart’, as it’s commonly abbreviated, is renowned for its challenging phases and varied moods. The first priority for any competitor is just getting safely out of Sydney Harbour, awash with an armada of spectator craft. Then comes the navigator’s first dilemma heading south: inshore for breeze or offshore for current?
If all is well you enter the fearsome Bass Strait in good order. You’ll need to; seasoned circumnavigators describe its seas as the worst in the world on a bad day. It’s boat-breaking stuff if you’re unlucky, as many were in the tragic 1998 storm.
Then somewhere down the line you’ll be running out of breeze, maybe on the Tasmanian east coast? But it’ll be back soon enough, just pray that a big southerly doesn’t catch you trying to round Tasman Island, as the seas will be immense and the rounding interminable. Into and across the usually aptly named Storm Bay – although quiet as mouse for most in 2019 – the course takes you finally past the Iron Pot at the entrance to Derwent River.
With only 11 miles to go, you’re nearly there; except you’re not if you’ve arrived early evening for a classic Derwent ‘closedown’. Many a race has been lost here within a sniff of the race’s famous ‘QLD’ (quiet little drink) at Hobart’s Customs House Hotel.
Despite its rugged reputation, for all but the tail end of the fleet in this anniversary race the greatest challenge in the uncharacteristically light to moderate running conditions to Hobart was to pick the best route through two large and complex light air transitions.
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That the race got away at all on Boxing Day was something of a relief, the lead-up SOLAS Big Boat Challenge had been cancelled when thick smoke from the bushfires raging on Australia’s east coast blanketed Sydney Harbour like dense fog, leading to talk of postponing – or even cancelling – should such conditions recur on start day.
But Boxing Day dawned bright, with only a slight smoke haze and the promise of a building north-easterly sea breeze to send the 157-strong fleet southward under spinnakers to the first of those light air troughs off the New South Wales south coast.
Those two transitions (the second off Tasman Island) were to tax the navigators of yachts large and small. “We were mentally in agony for about three days trying to make the right decisions,” said Ed Psaltis, skipper of the Sydney 36 Midnight Rambler. And the mental anguish is never worse than in the tormenting 11 miles it takes to sail up the Derwent River to the finish line, as the line honours winner was to find.
Jim Cooney and Samantha Grant’s 100ft Comanche had passed the famous Iron Pot at the entrance to the Derwent River at dawn on the third day, holding a steady 12 knots boat speed, with a healthy eight mile lead over Christian Beck’s InfoTrack in the battle of the 100ft maxis.
But the breeze on this notoriously fickle river suddenly evaporated, leaving the super-beamy maxi yacht flat on its bottom, stock still and surrounded by a large, equally stationary spectator fleet. As Comanche’s anxious crew looked south, InfoTrack could be seen on the horizon, entering the river with breeze. “It looked like a bad movie that we’d seen before,” recalled Comanche’s navigator Stan Honey, who has seen this river in its many capricious moods.
After agonising minutes with a spotter aloft searching for any zephyrs, the collective exhalation aboard Comanche was almost audible as a light breeze returned and she crossed the finish to take line honours in 1d 18h 30m – nine hours outside her own record from 2017.
“Finishing this race here, that was traumatic,” said Jim Cooney on the dock. “That’s 30 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Winning was relief more than elation!”
All was in sharp contrast to the original 1945 cruise-in-company-turned-race. After disappearing over the horizon under spinnakers as they turned right out of Sydney Harbour in a light north-easterly, the nine yachts racing 75 years ago went ‘missing’ for almost five days after a powerful southerly gale and huge seas scattered the fleet on the first night at sea.
The response to such challenging conditions and the determination to finish the race was as practical as it was unconventional to modern eyes. Some hove-to, others turned north with the seas, trailing sea anchors, while Bert and Russ Walker’s Saltair decided to get off the course entirely.
Finding shelter in a small cove on the New South Wales coast, Saltair’s crew rowed ashore in their dinghy – one of the few ‘safety equipment’ requirements of that first race – shot two rabbits for dinner and even made time for a visit to the local cinema before resuming the race the following morning when conditions had moderated.
The rules for the inaugural race were also few and evidently flexible. When two competitors ran aground almost within sight of the finish line – one being towed free and the other motoring out of trouble – such was the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s desire to encourage future competitors, they quietly overlooked these minor indiscretions and neither boat was disqualified.
But above all, for the race pioneers just finishing was the goal; so the elapsed time of 11d 6h 20m for the last boat into Hobart remains a record to this day.
Every one of the 75 years the race has run is rich with epic tales and priceless anecdotes. In recent years Christian Beck, the self-deprecating owner of InfoTrack (formerly David George’s Rambler 100, which famously lost its keel in the 2011 Fastnet Race), has added some of the more memorable one-liners to the long catalogue of quotes from Hobart’s Constitution Dock that pepper the biography of this race.
A predominantly inshore sailor when he bought InfoTrack in 2016, Beck had famously called his new yacht ‘a bit of a dog’ shortly after he acquired her. So when this ageing super maxi led the four other 100-footers out of Sydney Harbour in this year’s race, Beck was obviously delighted.
Asked in Hobart whether he still considered his yacht a ‘bit of a dog’, Beck’s response was magnanimous. “Oh no, it is a dog of a boat, just very well sailed!” he laughed, heaping praise on his star-studded crew.
Remarkably, despite their varying ages and designs, all five super maxis had been within sight of each other as they sailed up the Derwent River. Even for Mark Richards, the skipper of nine-times line honours winner Wild Oats XI, who had to settle for 3rd place this year, the draw of the race remains as powerful as ever.
“There’s no doubt about it, it’s the best race for these 100-footers on the planet,” said Richards in Hobart, “It’s a great event, a great race. Technically there are so many variables involved in this race.”
With the line honours contenders berthed in Constitution Dock, attention turned to the much-coveted Tattersall Cup for the overall handicap winner under IRC. Anyone aspiring to raise this splendid baroque silverware aloft must bring together an extraordinarily well-prepared boat (be it old or new), crew and strategy. Luck too will still play its part.
For Matt Allen, the skipper of the Botin designed TP52 Ichi Ban, a decades-long mission to bring together all those factors, and remove the element of luck, has involved countless hours working with his designers and crew analysing years of race and weather data, firstly to optimise the yacht’s design and then their race strategy. This laser-like focus was rewarded in 2017 when the recently launched Ichi Ban won the Tattersall Cup on her first race to Hobart.
As if to prove that the Ichi Ban team had reduced the influence of fortune, they repeated the achievement in 2019, beating the 11 other TP52s in a year when escaping the large windless ‘holes’ unquestionably involved a balance of good luck and good management.
“We’ve spent so much time trying to get the boat ready, that is a good all round boat and I think this is a good size range,” said Allen shortly after being handed the Tattersall Cup,
“As the 50-footers have been getting faster and faster, it normally suits the arrival times into Hobart and we have a boat that really has no weaknesses. You might not want to go upwind in it in 40 knots of breeze, but then there’s probably no other boat you want to do that in either!”
With the leaders having had a physically undemanding run south the race was already gaining the tag ‘benign’, but for the third of the fleet still on the race course that description would not remain true.
As temperatures in Hobart reached a record 40°C on the fourth day, a hot and violent north-westerly blasted across Tasmania’s south coast, whipping up a large bushfire north of Hobart, closing the Race Village and leaving the smaller and slower yachts still at sea wrestling to complete the race, as they battled gusts of 40 knots and large seas.
For Wayne Jones, skipper of the Beneteau 47.7 Tribal Warrior, getting to Hobart was a matter of honour and pride. “We prepared for the gale, we had everything right and it just smashed us,” recalled an exhausted Jones as he and his crew stepped ashore in Hobart. “It set us back about six to seven hours. It was blowing the boat sideways. We got pounded.
Tribal Warrior was the first officially entered indigenous crew ever to participate. “I came up with this idea in 2014 and here we are in 2019 and we’re finally in the race and we finished it – oh my God,” said a deeply relieved Jones at a very emotional arrival for all the crew. “I call it the people’s boat. It’s been wonderful, even the other yachtsmen we’re racing against are patting us on the back and saying it’s a really nice thing,” added Jones,
Crewmember Naomi Cain, who had only been sailing for six weeks before this race, found the experience challenging but deeply rewarding. “Mother Nature and our ancestors threw everything possible at us, but we made it here”, said Cain, who lives in a country town a long way from the ocean, but is keen to get more indigenous people involved in sailing.
For Michael Spies, a 42-time veteran of this race and sailing master aboard Bill Barry-Cotter’s beautifully restored 1904 ketch Katwinchar (the oldest yacht ever to race to Hobart), the last hours in the river were also hard work thanks to the diminutive double-ender’s low freeboard and tendency to ship water across the decks in a seaway.
“We were down to the rail and then it just got worse and worse. But it just goes faster and lower and lower. The snorkels come up and away you go!” Spies explained.
For many sailors around the world it is these tales of dogged determination to battle through the extreme conditions that this race so often serves up that places it at the top of any racer’s bucket list.
But while the drought and unprecedented bushfires sweeping across Australia are symptoms of wider changes in the climate, it is changing this race too. Renowned ocean racing navigator and marine biologist Will Oxley (navigator aboard Ichi Ban) explained in Hobart that the run of mostly downwind races to Hobart over recent years is not simply an aberration, but rather the result of the warming of the Southern Oceans.
“As a result of that we’re getting less of the cut-off lows; so in Sydney to Hobart terms that means we’re more likely to have these running conditions and less of the brutal southerly busters,” said Oxley. “That’s not to say that we won’t have a massive southerly blow, just that the probability of them occurring is decreasing” he added.
One suspects that British Naval Captain and much respected ocean racer John Illingworth, who turned the idea of a cruise into this famous race, would be hoping it loses none of its tough reputation. As Melbourne’s The Age newspaper so aptly observed in the lead-up to the 1953 race: ‘…to the devotees of “ocean walloping”, few sports offer the enduring satisfaction of bringing a small yacht safe to port ahead of all its rivals.’
First published in the March 2020 issue of Yachting World.