At midnight Bob Steel hauled down the battle flag flying from Quest’s forestay and “skulked” to bed resigned to the fact that he would again just miss out on winning the Sydney-Hobart race on handicap. Once before he had been provisionally declared the winner only to miss out when a smaller boat still sailing beat his time on handicap. And there were still at least four smaller boats, Challenge Again, Toecutter, Impeccable and Zeus II, still on the race course each with a chance of beating Quest’s time on handicap.

Quest finished at 9.03am on Sunday morning after taking two days, 20 hours three minutes and 41 seconds to complete the 630-nautical mile race. For the IMS handicapped boats Quest’s corrected time was the time to beat.

But as it so often happens in this classic race, the weather conditions can change rapidly, especially in Storm Bay and the notorious Derwent River. And it was a different story the next morning.

Lou Abrahams sailing in his 40th Hobart sounded frustrated as he reported Another Challenge’s position by radio at the Iron Pot, which marks the entrance to the Derwent. His Sydney 38 had been in contention for handicap honours the entire race and now the boat was sitting, parked, just 11 nautical miles from the finish with very little wind.

“We had a good run all the way to Cape Raoul and then we had nothing,” the 75-year-old skipper said. “We sat there for a while and then had a very good run across Storm Bay to the Iron Pot, and we had nothing there either.

“Parking at the Iron Pot cost us an hour to an hour and a half,” Abrahams said. “You race from Sydney and then you get another race happening in the Derwent. … worked hard with sails up and sails down trying to capture every breath of wind.”

Challenge parked again at the John Garrow light in sight of the finish. And that was the end of any chance of a handicap win.

It was frustrating for the quietly spoken skipper. But he has achieved a goal and marked this milestone race with a third placing outright on handicap. Despite his success and the fact that he is now one of only three sailors who have made the trek south 40 times or more, when the question was posed by the waiting media, he was non-committal about sailing another Hobart. “I’m thinking hard about the 2003 race, but I’m not saying anything,” he said.

Toecutter’s race was run soon after rounding Tasman Island, They too found light wind conditions. Robert Hick, designer, builder and skipper of the 30 footer was very disappointed when the boat finally tied up in Constitution Dock. By the way his new boat had performed during the race he felt that if the wind had stayed in he could have won on handicap. However, he has won the Plum Crazy trophy for the first yacht under 9.5 metres to finish.

Another of his designs Red Rock Communications skippered by Christopher Bowling finished third in Division C. Bowling, who has sailed all of his 12 Hobarts in yachts under 9.5 metres, won the Plum Crazy Trophy in 2000 and 2001.

The Quest crew awoke to the news that Zeus II, the winner of the race in 1981 and skippered by Jim Dunstan was close to the finish. The tiny yacht was ghosting along in light conditions and could take the prestigious prize. It was a nervous Bob Steel and his crew and they stood on Battery Point watching Zeus II slowly close the finishing line.

Sadly, time ran out for the veteran skipper sailing in his 25th Hobart race and Zeus crossed the finishing line eight minutes too late. About 10 minutes after Zeus finished the wind picked up. Jim Dunstan was unfazed he was more than happy to finish second but did make the comment that “it was a pity the wind didn’t come in about 15 minutes earlier.”

When Zeus II won the race in 1981. There were 158 starters in that race and it took the nine-metre Currawong design just over five days to complete the course. This time it took a little over three days.

This is the 16th and last time Zeus II will sail to Hobart, Dunstan has plans for a bigger boat. Although he did make the aside that perhaps a maxi owner may like to offer him a berth as navigator for this year’s race.

Bob Steel and his crew were ecstatic, Steel has finished second twice and once before he had been declared the provisional winner for 30 hours until another smaller boat sailed home to beat him on handicap by seven minutes. The win capped a successful year for the 46-foot Nelson/Marek design built in 1997 and optimised in the last 18 months. In 2002 Quest won the Sydney to Mooloolaba race on IMS, the IRC division at Hamilton Island Race Week for the third consecutive year and is currently leading the CYCA Blue Water point score.

“To win the Hobart is the pinnacle of my 35-year sailing career,” he said. The 58th Rolex Sydney to Hobart yacht race started on Boxing Day in horrendous conditions. In direct contrast to the pall of smoke and ash that hung over the city from the bushfires that surrounded Sydney the previous year, the rain was so heavy that there was less than 50 metres visibility around the crowded start line and yachts were just grey shadows in a heavy grey mist as they jostled for position.

At the gun Neville Crichton’s 27-metre Shockwave, renamed Alfa Romeo for the race appeared out of the gloom to lead around the seamark followed by Leopard of London also renamed for the race as Canon.

But the drama was back in the harbour in the gloom, Loki, a Swan 48 skippered by Stephen Ainsworth found the starboard stern quarter of Trumpcard. The collision pitched a crewman out of the cockpit into the water and damaged the cold-moulded timber boat enough to put it out of the race. In another incident, Savoir Faire, a Beneteau 47.7, renamed Peugeot Racing and crewed by an Australian and French crew, collided with the Tasmanian entry Valheru, an Elliott 43 skippered by Anthony Lyall. Skipper of Peugeot Racing, Christophe Venak, attempted to give way to Valheru by ducking closely behind it, but the mainsheet on the French boat jammed and it rounded up, slamming into the side of Valheru, also a timber boat. The collision was severe enough to open up a large hole in the side of Valheru and also pitch a crewman into the water. Both Peugeot Racing and Loki did 720 turns and continued in the race.

The incidents were protested under the racing rules and went before an international jury in Hobart. The jury ruled the protests by Trump Card and Valheru invalid on technical grounds, but then went on to disqualify both Peugeot Racing and Loki under racing Rule 44.1 which requires a yacht that has caused serious damage by her breach to retire. Significantly Trump Card and Valheru were the only two yachts from the entire fleet to retire from the race.

As darkness fell on the first night Alfa Romeo held a two-mile lead over Canon with Grant Wharington’s Australian Skandia Wild Thing a further four miles astern followed by 2000 line honours winner and runner up the previous year, Nicorette and then the flying “skiff” Grundig which was to make a charge across Bass Strait later in the race to finish second across the line. George Snow’s Brindabella, the last all-Australian boat to take line honours in 1997, was 16 miles behind the leader.

With the usual southerly buster that buffets the fleet at some stage of the race not eventuating, it settled down to a battle of tactics and soon there were races within the race. Up front there were the maxis, the Volvo 60s were having their own private battle, there was keen rivalry between the 50 footers and the Sydney 38s were doing their own thing, while at the back of the fleet the smaller boats were sailing well.

Alfa Romeo was reaching down the New South Wales coast in a 15-knot easterly at speeds of 10 and 11 knots and was well within sight of setting a race record. Behind the 90-footer a drag race was happening as the navigators and tacticians looked for ways to get in front of their rivals.

Back in the fleet Bill Koppe’s 27-year-old Delta Wing, the second oldest boat in the fleet, was revelling in the reaching conditions and was leading the PHG division on handicap from Alex Whitworth’s Brolga 33, Berrimilla. Entered by the Royal Australian Navy Sailing Association, Berrimilla has more than once spent New Year’s Eve at sea. But this year, despite finishing last, Whitworth and his crew were in Hobart in just under four days and in time for the party. As he motored under the bridge into Constitution Dock, Whitworth quipped to the well wishers applauding his efforts, “sorry to keep you waiting.”

The leaders entered Bass Strait in 12 to 14 knot northeasterly with spinnakers flying. But overnight the breeze started to become shifty and the fleet separated looking for wind. Wild Thing took a gamble and in one report was 105nm to sea looking for wind. Dawn came and the winds remained light at 8-10 knots from the northeast, any chance of a race record went out the window.

Alfa Romeo was positioned about 50nm east of the rhumbline and in a perfect position to pick up the forecast stronger nor’easterly later in the day. To that stage the maxi had averaged 12 knots boat speed.
With the wind picking up Alfa was storming down the Tasmanian coast with its five international helmsmen, including Michael Coxon, ‘Barney’ Walker, Noel Drennon and Chrichton himself sending the 90-footer along at speeds of up to 26 knots. And this was despite the fact that most of the race was spent two-sail reaching, which is the boat’s worst sailing angle. The crew only needed to change sails twice during the entire race.
Later in Hobart, Neville Crichton said that without the extra five tonnes on the keel required under the rules for the Hobart race and using water ballast, the boat could reach speeds in the mid-30s.

Although Alfa didn’t break Nokia’s record the sleek, Silver flyer stormed home in the second fastest time yet. This was Crichton’s second attempt at line honours. In 2000 a former Shockwave was forced to retire not far into Bass Strait when in the lead after heavy weather conditions caused damage to the boat.

“We didn’t break the record,” he said, “but we didn’t break the boat either. “It’s very important to have winning the Hobart race on your resume – that’s as good as it gets,” he said. As his crew of professional sailors, “mostly Australian and New Zealanders, with a couple of poms rejected from their cricket team” broke out the champagne, Crichton ended his self-imposed draught. “I’ve been off the booze for three months – I think I deserve a drink tonight,” he added.

Crichton genuinely believes that had the race started a day later with the stronger winds that come in during the latter half of the race the boat would have broken the record. On one occasion it was powering along in 11 knots of true wind with 12 knots of boatspeed. “It was an extremely easy race – it was hard to believe how easy it was,” said Crichton. “We sailed most of the race in T-shirts and shorts, which is unheard of coming to Hobart.”

An unassuming Barney Walker, who has sailed in 15 Hobarts and helmed four yachts to victory in the race – three on overall handicap and aboard Nokia when it broke the race record – agreed the race was an easy one.

“It was such a light air race we rarely saw over 15 knots of wind. But we didn’t stop we kept the boat moving all the time,” Walker said. “We didn’t have time to get bored though. The lighter the air the harder you have to concentrate. I love the race and get a kick out of it. It’s a tough test and is one of the hardest races to do because of its time scale. On a long race like the Volvo you get into a routine, but with the Hobart you don’t sleep and you don’t get a lot of time to rest, the course is tight and at the end of the day you don’t have much room to move. You have to identify the people who can beat you and protect your position by keeping yourself between them and the mark (Tasman Island). That’s how we sailed the Volvo race.

Bob Steel (Quest) holds the Tattersall’s Cup high after his overall win on handicap.

“We had to make some tactical decisions. Firstly with Canon and then Grundig. She sailed a slightly different course than us and at one stage there were conflicting reports as to where she was,” Walker added.

But the two-sail reaching conditions were perfect for Sean Langman’s Grundig nicknamed ‘the skiff on steroids’. And when the nor’easter came in, Langman’s crew of skiff sailors including 49er world champion Chris Nicholson and a couple of 505 world champions charged off after the leaders. The Sydney Open 66 stormed across Bass Strait and pulled up from fourth place into second.

The boat is fantastic in flat water and when we rounded Tasman Island we found some pressure and flat water and she was reaching speed of 26 knots. We tried to get her up to 30 knots but we ran out of runway,” Langman said.

Langman and his crew pushed hard and, despite losing the masthead wind instruments and Joey de Kock spending much of the race at the top of the mast dealing with a main halyard problem and at times having to nurse the boat, it finished only 44 minutes behind Alfa, and an extraordinary 11 miles in front of Canon. Despite the full-on effort the skiff sailors put in, Langman was not at all disappointed in coming second. “ I had been hoping for a top five placing, coming second was fantastic,” he said. “We would have needed our ideal conditions all the way to beat Alfa Romeo.”

However, Langman was quick to point out the differences between the two boats. “Grundig is a home grown product built out of pieces of other boats and worth under a million dollars. We have been vindicated,” he added.

The reference to the cost was a comparison with the cost to build Shockwave, its design by America’s Cup naval architects John Riechel and Jim Pugh, and its exotic construction. Depending on who you talk to the cost varies between five and nine million dollars.

When asked if this was a victory for the battlers, Langman just grinned. Langman would like the chance to race Shockwave (Alfa Romeo) in Grundig’s optimum conditions, flat water and a broad reach. But that is not to be. Shockwave left Australia after the Hobart to take part in the Millennium Cup in Auckland, a lead up race to the America’s Cup. From there it is going to Europe and if like other boats Crichton has taken to Europe it will be quickly snapped up by a European owner.

Crichton has indicated that he will be back for the Hobart with another boat in a couple of years. It too will probably be as hard to beat as this one.

Speaking at the trophy presentation at the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, the Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, John Messenger, predicted there would be more than 100 entries in this year’s race and in excess of 200 for the 60th anniversary of the race in 2004.

Messenger said the fleet of 57 boats that contested the race this year was small, but described it as one of the highest quality fleets ever seen in the race. “Indeed, one of the best racing fleets in the world.”

Except for the incidents at the start that sidelined Trumpcard and Valheru, not one boat retired during the race. As Messenger pointed out, reaching and running conditions require greater concentration and more skill than steering a boat to windward and the fact that very little damage was done during the race was testament to the strict eligibility criteria for boats and crews required by the CYCA.

The Premier of Tasmania, Jim Bacon, presented the Tasmanian Government Medallions to six yachtsman and a yacht for having competed in 25 Sydney-Hobart races.
The yacht Mark Twain, an S&S 39, owned and skippered by Hugh O’Neill from Sydney Amateur Sailing Club, is the first yacht in the 58-year history of the race to have sailed in 25 races. Mark Twain has picked up two second and two third divisional places in the race and successfully finished the storm-ravaged 1998 race.
The six yachtsmen to have sailed in 25 races are:
Colin Anderson, Melbourne, crew member on Nips N Tux.
Jim Dunstan, Sydney, who skippered his own yacht Zeus II to second place overall.
John Harris, Sydney, a member of the communications team aboard the radio relay vessel Four Seasons.
Bob Fraser, Sydney, crew member on Nips N Tux.
Ian Potter, Sydney, navigator on Infinity III.
Bill Watson, Hobart, crew member on Mirrabooka, whose skipper, John Bennetto, sailed in his
42nd Hobart.
The six join 53 other Hobart Heroes who have sailed in 25 Sydney-Hobarts and have their names engraved on a Huon Pine map of Tasmania displayed at the CYCA in Sydney.

Line Honours
1. Alfa Romeo (Shockwave, Neville Crichton)
2. Grundig (Sean Langman)
3. Canon (Leopard of London, Mike Slade)

IMS Overall (Tattersall’s Cup)
1. Quest (Bob Steel)
2. Zeus II (Jim Dunstan)
3. Another Challenge (Lou Abrahams)

Division A
1. Quest (Bob Steel)
2. Starlight Express (Stewart Thwaites)
3. Fitness First Sting (Terry Mullens)

Division B
1. Zeus II (Jim Dunstan)
2. Pippin (David Taylor)
3. Impeccable (John Walker)

Division C
1. Another Challenge (Lou Abrahams)
2. Chutzpah (Bruce Taylor)
3. Redrock Communications (Chris Bowling)

IRC Overall
1. Starlight Express (Stewart Thwaites)
2. Quest (Bob Steel)
3. Another Challenge (Lou Abrahams)

Division A
1. Starlight Express (Stewart Thwaites)
2. Formula 1 Sailing.Com (Bob Robertson-Alex Thompsom)
3. Alfa Romeo (Neville Crichton)

Division B
1. Quest (Bob Steel)
2. Another Challenge (Lou Abrahams)
3. Chutzpah (Bruce Taylor)

PHS Division
1. Delta Wing (Bill Koppe)
2. Kickatinalong (Mike de Berg)
3. Berrimilla (Alex Whitworth)

Sydney 38s
1. Andrew Short Marine (Andrew Short)
2. Polar Star (Natasha Hemley-Smith- Georgy Shayduko)
3. (Ty Oxley- Peter Mooney).

Did Not Finish
Trumpcard (Craig Coulsen)
Valheru (Anthony Lyall)