The weather forecast on Christmas Eve was for gale force winds and possible snow - crews were advised to wear their thermal underwear. Was this a briefing for a Northern Hemisphere race? No, it was the pre-race weather forecast for the 56th annual dash south to Hobart.
For the veterans of the 630 nautical mile race rough conditions are nothing new, it's all part of a Sydney to Hobart. Entrants are guaranteed to get a blow at some stage during the race - that's the nature of the beast. And it is just as likely to get nasty on the way home as well. The author remembers one return trip home sitting in Ringarooma Bay in the north of Tasmania for five days, the boat trying to sail off the anchor under bare poles as the wind outside the bay howled at 50 knots and snow fell on the hills behind the anchorage. And that was on the 5th of January.
For Roger Hickman, Rear-Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club, a veteran of 24 Hobarts and sailing master on Kevan Pearce's Farr 47, SAP Ausmaid, the conditions were typical for a Hobart race. They suited the boat, which had been built by Melbourne's Mal Hart especially for the tough conditions expected in the race.
Ausmaid, has competed in five Sydney to Hobarts. When owned by Melbourne businessman Giorgio Gjergja, it won the race in 1996 and in Kevan Pearce's hands has finished with a third in 1997, second in 1998, another third in 1999 and a win in 2000.
Hickman, a native of Tasmania, admitted that he didn't expect the conditions to be as tough as they turned out to be. The race was all the harder because, except for the first afternoon out of Sydney, the yachts had the wind on the nose, often at 50 knots or more, and it was a tough, hard slog all the way to Hobart.
Olympic swimming gold medallist Susie O'Neil fired the warning gun and the Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant General Peter Cosgrove fired the starting gun to send the fleet on its 630 nautical mile journey south on Boxing Day.
There were doubts that a number of competitors would be able to start in the race following the findings and recommendations of the New South Wales coroner, who had handed down his report into the tragic deaths during the 1998 race just two weeks prior to the event. He recommended that certain liferafts, lifejackets and harnesses be banned from ocean racing events. This affected about 10 per cent of the fleet as race organisers, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, adopted the recommendations without hesitation and there was a scramble by a number of owners to source approved equipment. The yachting fraternity rallied and much of the gear was loaned by other owners not competing in the race.
Prior to this the CYCA had introduced its own safety measures, which required at least 50 per cent of the crew to have attended a special safety course and at least two members to have advanced first aid qualifications. In addition, the club introduced a mandatory reporting point for each yacht before it entered Bass Strait.
As yachts came abeam of Green Cape, on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, which marks the northern entrance to Bass Strait, each skipper had to report that the boat and its crew were in good shape and capable of crossing the notorious stretch of water.
A number of crews assessed their position at this point and some, in the interest of prudent seamanship, retired from the race not wishing to put themselves at risk, especially in view of the weather forecast that included a gale warning for Tasmanian waters.
The events of 1998 have changed attitudes. No longer is it 'sissy' to pull out of a race or to wear safety harnesses and inflatable lifejackets on deck. According to most skippers, very few crew had to be asked to put their safety gear on. Many didn't take it off for the whole journey, even sleeping in it so that they could get on deck quickly if needed for a headsail change or an emergency.
Favourite for line honours was the 24.4 metre maxi, Shockwave, owned by Sydney-based New Zealander Neville Crichton. The state-of-the-art yacht, crewed by members of New Zealand's America's Cup team - Team New Zealand - has not been beaten across the line since is debut at Hamilton Island Race Week in August. Despite its impressive record, the yacht had never been pushed in the tough conditions of a Hobart race. Even the owner was expressing doubts that the boat might not come through the race unscathed and he admitted that if the multi-million dollar boat looked like being damaged during the race he would pull out.
As fate would have it, Shockwave did pull out of the race after bolting from the rest of the fleet in the hard southerly winds that pushed up some nasty seas against the south-running east coast current. With a handy lead, that would have set the maxi up for a line honours win, it hit something in the water just 30 nautical miles into Bass Strait. Shockwave returned to Sydney minus about a metre of its blade rudder.
But there were nine other big boats charging south, all with a chance of taking line honours given the right conditions. The 2000 Sydney to Hobart boasted the biggest line up of maxis and 60 footers in the history of the race.
Race record holder, Nokia, was back with four other Volvo 60s. The Volvo 60s were using the race as training for next year's Volvo Round The World Race. The Sydney to Hobart is one of the legs of the race to Auckland. The fleet will race south, spend a short pitstop of three hours in Hobart and then head across the Tasman.
Zena and Brindabella (jnset)
Not one of the internationals arrived in Hobart unscathed. All had suffered damage including crew injuries. So much so that the planned three-hour pitstop was extended for 24 hours, and even then only three of the Volvo 60s started in the leg to Auckland. Many of the international crews got a wake-up call that perhaps the shortest leg of the Round the World Race should not be underestimated.
This year Nokia limped home in seventh place in the fleet, her mainsail ripped in two and 37 hours slower than her time in 1999. But then this race was a hard beat to windward for about 80 per cent of the time; 1999 was a spinnaker run and a power reach most of the way in fresh to strong winds.
George Snow's sentimental favourite, Brindabella, was back, but was forced to pull out when the bow delaminated. Brindabella suffered a similar problem in its first race in 1993, but this time the problem was on the other side of the bow. Grant Wharington's lengthened maxi, Wild Thing, was a contender for line honours. At 83 feet, Wild Thing was the biggest boat in the fleet and was competing this year using its water ballast tanks.
Other line honours contenders were the Swedish maxi Nicorette, owned by former world champion maxi skipper, Ludde Ingvall from Sweden. The sophisticated water-ballasted 80 footer had been racing in Europe as Skandia and was fitted with a new keel and shipped to Australia by its sponsors to line up against Shockwave. The Swedish boat has introduced a new level of sponsorship participation to Australian yachting.
Former Australian Star Class champion, Sean Langman was steering his Open 60, Zena, also water ballasted. Designed by Andy Dovell, the 60 footer was originally built for the Vendee Globe Challenge and is a downwind flyer.
And back in the fleet were the usual smaller competitors where the competition was just as fierce for outright and handicap honours. James Dunstan, Commodore of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, had entered, Zeus II, for the 13th time. The tiny Currawong 30 won the race on handicap in 1981.
Geoff Ross was back with last year's winner Yendys for an attempt at back-to-back wins. Only two yachts have won successive Sydney to Hobarts in 55 races, the famous Freya in 1963, 64 and 65, and Westward in 1947 and 48. While for some, one Hobart is enough, there are those who come back year after year. Like Tasmania's John Bennetto, who admits to being 70-plus, was sailing Mirrabooka in his 40th Hobart and equalled the record held by Sydney navigator Richard 'Sightie' Hammond. Mirrabooka, a Frers 47, has competed in every Hobart race since it was launched in 1987. It generally finishes in the middle of the fleet and according to John, it's not because we are getting slower, it's because everyone else is getting faster."
Over the years, John Bennetto has made many friends including Don Mickleborough, who lined up for his 36th race in Southerly, which was built in 1939. Mickleborough, at 76 years of age, is one of the oldest and most experienced skippers in the race. He and his crew of 'characters' have some 118 Sydney to Hobart races between them and their past successes include a divisional win in 1994 and a third overall in 1995. Southerly's well known motto is 'old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill'. Unfortunately the 'old timers' found the going a bit tough this time and wisely turned around before they got into Bass Strait.
Also taking part in his 37th race south was Melbourne's Lou Abrahams in Another Challenge, a Sydney 38. The number of races he has completed is something of a record for an owner/skipper and when asked why he keeps coming back he replies candidly, "to win it." The sprightly sailor from Sandringham Yacht Club has won the classic twice.
With Shockwave on its way back to Sydney the stage was set for a battle between Wild Thing and Nicorette - the 'Aussie Battler' against the multi-million dollar corporation. The two boats virtually match-raced into Bass Strait. But off the Tasmanian east coast a critical jib blew in half and jammed the headsail luff tape in the forestay foil. Wild Thing headed in shore to try and clear it, but it took about eight hours to repair and the boat fell behind with little hope of making up the distance to Nicorette. "And then we blew the mainsail in half, fortunately we had a spare," the Aussie skipper added.
But Tasmania saved the worst to last. As Wild Thing rounded Tasman Island the 83-footer was hit by a 60 knot-plus gust and a complete whiteout. The boat was sent hurtling towards a lee shore out of control, Grant Wharington said that it was the toughest part of the race, it was icy cold and "at one stage we had all sails down and were just sailing under bare poles trying to get the storm trisail up.
"The waves were pretty short and steep and once we realised that the wind wasn't going to shut down in the Derwent River overnight we just concentrated on getting here in one piece. "It took six hours to get around Tasman Island and the guys did an awesome job," said Wharington praising his crew.
Grant Wharington had hoped to be the first Victorian to take line honours in the race. To date he has managed four thirds and now a second. Asked what his future plans were for the boat, he smiled and said, "take it to Europe and beat them over there."
AFL football star and now TV commentator, Gerard Healy, who was sailing on Wild Thing, said that when the boat was hit after rounding Tasman Island he was terrified. "It was just pure skill and courage and determination by the crew that got us through. If something had gone wrong we were gone," he said. "I saw more courage in two days on that boat than in a lifetime on the football field. It is a pity the people at home can't see what goes on out there."
Healy has sailed in two Hobarts - he probably won't be doing a third.
Nicorette faced similar conditions across Storm Bay but, ironically, as the yacht approached the John Garrow light in the Derwent River, just two miles from the finish, the wind dropped out and the big maxi was becalmed. The Swedish yacht finished the race with a full main and a storm jib up. There wasn't time to hoist a bigger headsail as a crewman had to be sent aloft to unlash the headboard of the main, which had pulled out, so that the reefs could be taken out.
The Swedish yacht crossed the line to one of the quietest Hobart welcomes in many years. Even the hardy Tasmanians, with snow falling on Mt Wellington behind Hobart, were not willing to brave the bitterly cold weather in the early hours of the morning.
Nicorette, was built in Cape Town and launched in 1999 as Skandia and is the first IRM 2000 maxi with water ballast. It has been racing in Europe before being shipped to Australia where it was fitted with a new keel, new boom and rudder and new racing sails for the race. At constitution Dock after the finish, Nicorette's skipper, Ludde Ingvall admitted that the Aussie boat had forced him to sail faster than he was comfortable with, "they really put up a good fight."
"The big guy threw everything at us, at one stage we were on our side in 50 knots of wind," Ingvall recalled. "It was the toughest two-day race of my life. It was a hell of a beating that we took out there. Getting to Hobart is a victory for me and coming first makes it all the sweeter.
"My mainsail looks like Swiss cheese and we had to bury a number five headsail in Storm Bay. The list of damages has made it a costly trip, but it has all been worth it." But despite all the hype surrounding the line honours winners, the major prize, the overall IMS handicap win for the Tattersalls trophy was being battled out at sea amongst the 50 footers. These included SAP Ausmaid, Geoff Ross' Yendys, Quest, which had been chartered by Chris Bull from Britain's Royal Ocean racing Club and Syd Fischer's Ragamuffin.
The master tactician he is, Roger Hickman worked out that to win the race on IMS handicap Ausmaid would have to race this group in the middle of the fleet. "We believed that we had the potential of hanging on to this group, but we had to sail a little lower and not try and point into the wind as high as them," Hickman explained. "This meant that we had to foot for the header and sail about two or three degrees lower to match their speed. We had to rely on the headers to get us out of jail as we had to go low and fast. If we had sailed hard on the wind we would have never kept up with them.
"During the first day of running down the coast they edged away but after about 12 hours of sailing it was pretty even. Once we went on the wind we were still in it and at Gabo Island we tacked off early as soon as the breeze went to the right of the rhumb line course. Yendys and Ragamuffin didn't do that for another half-hour and we got our nose in front."
At the Green Cape reporting point Ausmaid radioed the race control and just 10 seconds later Yendys reported in, followed about a minute later by Ragamuffin - the three boats were virtually on the same latitude line sailing together.
Ausmaid stayed further out to sea and got the south-westerly and managed to gradually sail around Yendys and Ragamuffin and pull away.
For most of the trip Ausmaid carried a number five headsail and two reefs in the main. But during the race there were constant headsail and mainsail reefing changes. The only sails not used were the number two headsail and, of course, the number one light. The crew, which included navigator and Yachtsperson of the Year, Sally Gordon, were a great bunch Hickman told the crew from Yendys who were rafted up alongside in Constitution Dock as they swapped 'war' stories. "You'd just have to say headsail and five blokes would jump to it. A lot of the time we only had three on deck - two to protect the helmsman," he joked.
"Yeah, that rain was bloody fierce," came a reply from the back. Owner Kevan Pearce didn't hang around in Hobart to celebrate the win. As soon as Ausmaid docked he was on a plane straight back to Adelaide.
The fine sailing skills of the sailors, and in many cases the prudent seamanship shown by those who chose to retire voluntarily rather than risk further damage, once again underlined the fact that the Sydney to Hobart is a challenge against the powers of nature.
While 24 boats retired from the 82-boat fleet, there were no dismastings, only one yacht broke its rudder, although several had steering problems, only one yacht reported structural hull damage and the ballast bulb parted company with the keel on another. Several crew suffered injuries in the pounding seas, but none was serious.
Four yachts reported having man overboard situations, but all were successfully recovered, including one crewman washed off the foredeck when not wearing a safety harness or a lifejacket. Another yacht reported that a crewman's harness strap had broken as it sailed out of control after the rudder snapped off. He grabbed the safety line and hauled himself back on board.
The major cause of retirement appeared to be HF radio problems and this forced several boats to pull out when they realised they would not comply with the mandatory check-in at Green Cape.
Since the tragic events of 1998 the attitude to competing in a Sydney to Hobart race has changed dramatically. There was a time when pulling out of the race for a simple reason such as crew seasickness or just prudent seamanship would have attracted derision from fellow competitors and club members. That has now changed.
In Hobart, Roger Hickman summed up the new culture of the Sydney to Hobart race: "It is fun to start the event, it's fun to participate and there is absolutely no shame in pulling out at any time. It is not about getting to Hobart at all costs."
|IMS Overall |
1. SAP Ausmaid, Farr 47 (Kevan Pearce, Cruising Yacht Club of South Australia, SA).
|IRC Overall |
1. Nicorette, Simonis/Noogd 80 (Ludde Ingvall, Royal Yacht Club of Sweden, SWE).
|Special Trophies |
First yacht under 9.5m LOA to finish: Urban Guerrilla (Chris Bowling, Drummoyne Sailing Club, NSW).
Tasmanian Government 25 year medallions (men): Rod Jackman (TAS), Peter Duffield (NSW), Geoff Barter (NSW).
Tasmanian Government 10 year medallions (women): Adrienne Cahalan (NSW).
Audemar's Piquet Watch: Kevan Pearce (SAP Ausmaid).
Bill Owen Memorial Trophy for navigator of winning yacht (IMS): Sally Gordon (SAP Ausmaid).
Alan Payne Memorial Trophy to designer of winning yacht: Bruce Farr (USA/NZL).
Jack Rooklyn Memorial Trophy for first yacht out of Sydney Heads: Shockwave (Neville Crichton).
|IMS Division A |
1. SAP Ausmaid, Farr 47 (Kevan Pearce, Cruising Yacht Club of South Australia, SA).
2. Quest, Nelson/Marek 46 (Chris Bull, Royal Ocean Racing Club, GBR).
3. Yendys, Farr 49 (Geoff Ross, Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, AUS).
|IRC Division A |
1. Nicorette, Simonis/Noogd 80 (Ludde Ingvall, Royal Yacht Club of Sweden, SWE).
2. illbruck, Volvo 60 (John Kostecki, Dusseldorf Yacht Club, GER).
3. Tyco, Volvo 60 (Kevin Shoebridge, Royal Bermudan Yacht Club, BER).
|IMS Division B |
1. AFR Midnight Rambler, Hick 35 (Ed Psaltis and Bob Thomas, Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, NSW).
2. Doctor Who, Davidson 52 (Rod Jackman, Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, TAS).
3. Chutzpah, Murray/Burns/Dovell 35 (Bruce Taylor, Royal Yacht Club of Victoria, VIC).
|IRC Division B |
1. Polaris of Belmont, Cole 43 (John Quinn, Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club, NSW).
2. Loki, Swan 48 (Stephen Ainsworth, Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, NSW).
3. Summit Bacardi, Peterson 44 (Graeme Ainley and John Williams, Sandringham Yacht Club, VIC ).
|IMS Division C |
1. Sunstone, S&S 38 (Tom and Vicky Jackson, Royal Ocean Racing Club, GBR).
2. BOOTS, Cavalier 37 (Rex Billing and John Porter, Royal Brighton Yacht Club, VIC).
3. Hot Property, Farr 37 (David Hansen, Bellerive Yacht Club, TAS).
|PHS Division |
1 . Cruz Control, Santa Cruz 52 (Maynard Smith, Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron, QLD).
2. She II, Olsen 40 (Peter Rodgers, Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, NSW).
3. Sorbent Helsal II, Adams 66 (William Rawson, Royal Yacht Club of Victoria, VIC).