Story by Kevan Wolfe
Photographs by Ian Mainsbridge, David Clare,
Rick Tomlinson, Kevan Wolfe.

Just when veteran Sydney to Hobart yachties thought that they had seen it all the weather gods had something new in store for them - a massive water spout, the likes of which had never been seen before so far south in Australian waters.

The spout, about 500 metres in diameter and stretching thousands of feet into the sky, formed off Jervis Bay directly in the path of the race leaders.

Only 75 yachts including the eight Volvo round the world competitors started in the 57th Sydney to Hobart race. It was the smallest fleet to start the 630 nautical mile classic since 1990 when only 63 yachts headed south. Not having a major sponsor for the race did not help, but despite this it was a quality fleet with the biggest number of international entries in the history of the race.

The race for line honours was wide open and the grand prix division for the overall winner on IMS handicap was also hotly contested. The line honours favourite was last year's winner Nicorette. Owner Ludde Ingvall, who has just moved his family to Australia, stamped his name on the line honours trophy when the Swedish maxi won the Canon Big Boat Race on Sydney Harbour in December. Although only a fun corporate race it is taken seriously by the owners and is seen as an indication of which boat is the one to beat.

(Introduction pictures) 'Amer Sports One', 'Grundig' and 'News Corp' find it tough going. The race started in an eerie smoke haze from bushfires.

George Snow had modified Brindabella with a new keel and an additional five feet on the waterline and was a serious threat. As was Grant Wharington's Wild Thing, now called Australian Skandia. Wharington barely made the start. The boat had been delayed after competing in the America's Cup Jubilee Regatta and the European maxi circuit.

Favourite for the overall IMS handicap win was the Farr 47, SAP Ausmaid, which won the race the previous year. It was the second win for Ausmaid, along with a second and third, and owner Kevan Pearce was on track for a third win to add to the award of Ocean Racer of the Year he received in the week before the race. Roger Hickman was lining up for his 25th Hobart and was again onboard as sailing master.

 

The Harbour was shrouded in a eerie smoke haze from the bushfires that surrounded Sydney as the yachts almost ghosted to the start in the flukey sou'wester. The Volvo 60s started from a line 200 metres in front of the rest of the fleet.

Official starter was one of the original skippers to sail to Hobart in the inaugural 1945 race. Peter Luke sailed Wayfarer in the race and still holds the record for taking the longest time to get to Hobart - 11 days, 6 hours and 20 minutes. When Luke and his crew encountered 65-knot winds in Storm Bay they decided to give racing away for a while and put into Port Arthur for a crayfish dinner and wait for the wind to ease before continuing on to Hobart. The 86-year-old is also a co-founder of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia and is the oldest living Past Commodore. He shared the starting honours with Richard 'Sightie' Hammond, who fired the five-minute gun. Hammond completed 40 Sydney to Hobart races in 1999 and has now hung up his seaboots. With the Sou'wester dying and a sou'easterly sea breeze attempting to come in over the top, the wind was all over the place and local knowledge played a big part. No-one can ever remember when the race had started in a westerly wind. But the man who is at home on Sydney Harbour is Iain Murray and he was at the helm of John Kahlbetzer's 62 footer, Bumblebee 5 - one of his own designs.

Iain Murray steers 'Bumblebee 5' over to the eastern shore at the start.
'Aspect Computing' crewed by disabled sailors finished second on performance handicap

Murray elected for a risky port start and sailed over to the eastern shore to take advantage of the sea breeze when it came in. It was the right move. The sea breeze came in quicker than expected and suddenly Bumblebee was in front along with the Volvo 60 Team News Corp, which opted for the same tactic.

After the 2000 Hobart race when Bumblebee was forced to retire with a broken keel, Iain Murray and his design team, MBD Designs, have fitted a new America's Cup-style keel and optimised the boat for the all-round performance needed to win a Hobart. Earlier in December the 62-footer finished as the top IMS yacht in the hard-fought British Cup sailed off Sydney.

Where were the maxi's? Left on the line with wind coming from two different directions and tacticians scratching their heads wondering which way to go. It became a race between News Corp and Bumblebee to be the first boat to the seaward mark and take the $10,000 prize put up by French carmaker Citršen.

It was close, but News Corp had the legs. But hold on a minute, a Volvo 60 was not meant to win a rival carmaker's prize money. It was not even contemplated before the start that the prize would not be won by one of the maxi's. But they were not in the hunt.

 

The view the crew of 'illbruck' had of the approaching water spout
that almost devastated the leading yachts.

In Hobart News Corp donated the money with another $10,000 put in by the media group's Sydney newspaper, the Telegraph, to the NSW Bushfire Victims' Appeal. Citršen also put in another $10,000 to bring the total up to $30,000.

The fleet settled down into an uncomfortable bash south with the south setting current standing the sea up against a building sou'easter wind. Then just on dusk on the first day crews were frantically dropping sails as a huge water spout formed right in the path of the race leaders. With the wind blowing at more than 60 knots the spout was within 200 metres of the Volvo 60 illbruck. Skipper John Kostecki said: "We were desperately trying to avoid it the whole time. At one point it was going to leeward of us, so we came up, and then it started coming at us. So we had to bear away and start running away from it and then it started running at us. There was nothing we could do really, it just kept chasing us. "It came on so fast, the only thing we could do was to get our harnesses on and stay attached to the boat and drop the sails as fast as possible."

Neal McDonald, skipper of Assa Abloy and ultimate line honours winner, admitted he was pretty scared. Asked what the crew did when they saw the water spout McDonald grinned impishly and said that they just dropped the sails and everyone stayed on deck, "you wouldn't want to miss it".

 

'Tyco', 'Nicorett'e and 'Assa Abloy' pass Tasman Island

Then he became serious. "We were heading right for the middle of it. We altered course to try and avoid it but it turned straight at us. I assumed that it would go downwind, but it didn't, it came across the wind and we were in the middle of it. The wind went from 20 knots to 63 knots just like that. If we had still had the sails up there was every chance that they would have been whipped off. It could have been a lot worse," he admitted.

Both Nicorette and Wild Thing (Australian Skandia) also found themselves trying to avoid the twister. The mainsails on both maxis were shredded. Unable to avoid the twister, skipper Ingvall dropped the sails, sent all but two of his crew below and closed the hatches. The 80 footer was knocked flat twice and the mainsail, still attached to the boom was shredded and the battens broken. Luckily the spare delivery main was onboard. When the battens were repaired and the sail hoisted they were back in 15th place.

Undaunted Ingvall set off after the fleet, but he estimated the incident had cost them about five hours sailing time. Wild Thing didn't have a spare mainsail onboard and was forced to retire back to Sydney.

Approaching the Derwent River finish line.

Meanwhile, Bumblebee was charging south leading on IMS handicap. But not so Ausmaid. The continual pounding into the sharp seas and the crashing down the other side took its toll and Ausmaid's race ended when the mast fell over the side. Another casualty was Sean Langman's Open 60 Grundig, now a 66 footer after the addition of a scoop at the stern.

The boat was well into Bass Strait and Langman had the bit between his teeth. "djuice dragons was about six boat lengths to windward and Nicorette was about four miles behind us. It was looking as if this would be our year. We had high 10s/low 11s on the log and we were launching it."

But Bass Strait had the last word. The forward ring frame broke and the bow started to delaminate. Langman put out a precautionary emergency call and headed back to Eden - the bow section reinforced with the tubing from the pipe cots and the odd sailing shoe wedged on top to stop it punching through the deck. It was the second trip to Eden in as many Hobarts for the boat.

Three shipwrights from Langman's boat yard in Sydney drove to Eden and with the two shipwrights in the crew they worked around the clock to repair the damage. Undaunted, Langman sailed the boat back to Pittwater, north of Sydney, and arrived just 15 minutes before the start of the Pittwater to Coffs Harbour race. Grundig charged up the New South Wales coast to take line honours in the race for the second year in a row. Langman is now re-engineering the bow section of Grundig and will be back next year for another shot at the race that has so far eluded him.

Bass Strait was as uncompromising as it always is and the fleet had a rough ride across with the wind blowing from the southwest at about 20 knots or more. Then the race stopped. As the leaders sailed around Tasman Island into Storm Bay the wind dropped out and they found themselves in a parking lot off Cape Raoul.

News Corp was first around Tasman Island only to be the first into the windless hole. They sat there with sails flapping as other boats caught up. In all, there were about 10 boats all flapping about with frustrated crews trying to fill sails and sail out of the hole.


'Nicorette' with skipper Ludde Invgall in the Derwent.
 

The wind came in from the southeast. Both Nicorette and Assa Abloy, which had a shocker of a start in Sydney Harbour, further offshore than the rest were the first to get the change, they set course for the Iron Pot at the entrance to the Derwent River and the race restarted. While this was happening Bumblebee was still at sea and still leading overall on handicap.

Assa Abloy was first to the Iron Pot with Nicorette close behind, but not looking like the maxi could catch the Volvo 60. Needing to do something different other than following Assa Abloy the 11 miles to the finish, navigator Adrienne Cahalan chart in hand, guided Nicorette over to the eastern shore of the river. But even on this side of the river, where the outgoing tidal influence is not as strong as it is in the middle of the river, Nicorette was losing ground as the wind filled in further up the river and Assa Abloy powered away.

Eventually the maxi was forced to give away any idea of taking line honours for the second time and follow the Volvo 60 to the finish line off Battery Point. It was a different finish to last year and the one Ingvall had hoped for, but he was gracious in defeat saying, "the Sydney/Hobart race is one of the toughest things you can do in your life - everyone who makes it here is a winner."

 

'Assa Abloy' skipper Neal McDonald

Overall Results

Line Honours
1. Assa Abloy (Neal McDonald)
2. Nicorette (Ludde Ingvall)
3. Amer Sports One (Grant Dalton)

IMS
1. Bumblebee 5 (John Kahlbetzer)
2. Ninety Seven (Graham Gibson)
3. Ragamuffin (Syd Fischer)

PHS
1. Valtair (Matt Allen)
2. Aspect Computing (David Pescud)
3. Bright Morning Star (Randal Wilson)

IRC
1. Polaris of Belmont (John Quinn)
2. Lodka Bols (Gordon Kay)
3. Bacardi (Graeme Ainley & John Williams)

 

Although Assa Abloy's skipper, Neal McDonald, was somewhat blasŽ when asked about the conditions. "It was a walk in the park," he said. "Apart from the water spout, I have never done a Hobart as light as this one."

For the Hobartians who faithfully greet the fleet each year it was one of the best finishes they had ever seen. Six boats all finished within 47 minutes of each other.

Then in ninth place across the line came Bumblebee 5, still leading on IMS handicap. The only danger was one of the smallest boats in the fleet still at sea - Zeus II. The tiny 30 footer, owned by Jim Dunstan from the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron won the race on handicap in 1981. It was an anxious wait for Murray, but as the winds lightened off down the Tasmanian coast Zeus II ran out of puff and Bumblebee became one of the few boats that has led the race from start to finish on handicap.

 

For Iain Murray it was his first win after 11 previous starts in the race, although two of the Murray team designs - Terra Firma and Raptor - have previously won on handicap. For owner John Kahlbetzer, who took line honours with one of his Bumblebee yachts in 1979, it was his first handicap win. Kahlbetzer doesn't sail in the Hobart race anymore and as Iain Murray said on the dock in Hobart: "It was gratifying to know we have delivered the race for him."

Murray, a six times world 18 foot skiff champion and America's Cup skipper added that the win was one of those things that an ex-professional sailor like himself has on their wish-list of achievements in a sailing career.

The secret to the win was having a nucleus of the crew that had sailed the boat in the race twice before and with the new modifications they could push the boat hard, especially at night. The blinder of a start also played a big part by putting Bumblebee well in front of its rivals early in the race.

The last boat to finish was the tiny Sydney sloop, Sorine, which crossed the line at five o'clock in the morning more than five days and 16 hours after starting on Boxing Day. Of the 75 starters, 18 retired and one, the Volvo 60 Tyco, was declared a 'did not finish'.