The fleet may have been one of the smallest in years, but the 2003 Rolex Sydney-to-Hobart bluewater classic was one of the most hotly contested in years. The leaders match raced all the way to Hobart and there was some equally close racing back in the fleet.
First National Real Estate  

Kevan Wolfe reports from Hobart.
Photographs by Ian Mainsbridge and Richard Bennett.

In 1999 Michael Spies, the 44-year-old former 18-footer champion, was co-skipper on the Danish Volvo 60 Nokia when she smashed the race record set by Morning Glory two years before. Although Nokia finished first over the line and won the IRC handicap overall that year, Spies still had some unfinished business – an overall win in the championship IMS division and Australia’s major ocean racing prize – the coveted Tattersalls Cup.

This time it was a decisive win, not only did he sail his Beneateau 40.7 First National Real Estate to victory on IMS to win the Tattersalls Cup but he cleaned up the overall IRC handicap division as well.

Skandia leads Zana

Spies said that he gained inspiration from his sailing mate, Ashley Reed who died of a heart attack on the boat during the Sydney-to-Mooloolaba race 18-months before.

For co-owner Peter Johnson and 19-year-old navigator Andrew Joyce sailing their first Hobart race it was a win on debut. Spies still remembers the elation he felt when Syd Fischer gave him the break when he was a young sailor and has a policy of “giving young guys a go”.


First National Real Estate crossed the finishing line just after daybreak, and three days and some 16 hours of racing, in a light sou’westerly breeze of only eight-to-ten knots. It was a nervous wait as there were still yachts at sea that could steal the overall win. One was the veteran 34-footer Impeccable, skippered by 81-year-old John Walker. Still 65 nautical miles from the finish Impeccable, which Walker first sailed to Hobart in 1981, needed to average about eight knots to finish at 2.20pm that afternoon if she was to win the event. It proved to be an impossible task.

Spies and his crew sailed to a fairly simple game plan. “Push the boat, keep her pointing to Hobart at 95 per cent of her maximum speed 100 per cent of the time. We were tactically sound. We didn’t go out on any limbs.”

Down the Tasmanian coast the boat had 12 hours of hard spinnaker running and for six hours it was being sailed right on the edge. “We knew we had to keep pushing it to stay with the boats we had to beat.”

In running conditions that put a huge strain on the rudder, Spies must have been having some thoughts about the 2000 race. In the same stretch of water, when he was in a strong position to win the race on handicap, the rudder fell off the boat he had chartered for the race.

First National Real Estate was becalmed for a while in Bass Strait when the wind died and Spies thought that they had lost it, but the rest of the fleet stopped as well. After the wild ride down the Tassie coast they parked again at Tasman Island but finally got an early morning breeze in Storm Bay that carried them up the Derwent River to the finish.

He rated the overall win as more satisfying than the record-breaking run on Nokia. “There are only ever about three boats that can win line honours, but with handicap you have got about 30 boats that can win the race,” he said.

The Beneteau 40.7 doesn’t have the look of an out-and-out racing yacht, in fact it looks more like a cruiser/racer. However, the hull was designed by Bruce Farr and the boat has been heavily optimised. “We’ve worked hard to get the rating down. If I listed all the changes we’ve made it would take a couple of foolscap pages,” he said.


The pre-race hype was dominated by the clash of the supermaxis. Grant Wharington had unveiled his brand new 98-footer (30 metres) Skandia Wild Thing complete with canting keel technology. The huge yacht carried Wharington’s sail number 10 of his previous Wild Things from the Melbourne bayside Mornington Yacht Club. It was just about an all-Mornington affair. Local retired engineer and part-time yacht designer Don Jones, who has been noted for some radical and very fast designs over the years, crunched the numbers for the boat.

The current Cadibarra, designed by Jones, was skippered by his son Nigel in the 2003 Melbourne to Launceston race to take line honours and break the race record. Skandia, the 15th boat Don Jones has designed, was built by Mal Hart in Mornington and most of the 19 crew are Mornington yacht club members who have sailed with Wharington on his previous Wild Things.

Nokia 2UE

From across the Tasman came Stewart Thwaites and his brand new 30-metre supermaxi, Zana – named after his 13-year-old daughter. Although this was Zana’s first outing, Thwaites is no stranger to the Hobart racetrack. He has contested three of the ocean classics and had a divisional handicap win on the famous Starlight Express. Zana is the largest racing yacht to come out of New Zealand and in its conventional configuration was somewhat of a dark horse. But that didn’t stop the media playing up the rivalry between the two giants from either side of the Tasman. One Sydney newspaper even went to the extent of likening the clash to the Bledisloe Cup of yachting.

Other international entries were Zaraffa and Bounder. Zaraffa, a Reichel/Pugh 65, owned by 74-year-old New York Yacht Club member Skip Sheldon, got off to a slow start and found the going a bit tougher than the Bermuda Race and the Fastnet Race in England, which he has won. On arriving in Hobart, Sheldon said to CYCA Commodore John Messenger, who was on the marina at Constitution Dock to greet all the boats; “man, that was one hell of a hard race.”

Bounder, formerly 1999 race winner Yendys, was chartered by Royal Ocean Racing Club (England) Commodore, Chris Little. The Farr 49 finished with a win in IMS Division A.

When the starting gun was fired by 84-year-old Gordon Elliot, a veteran of the first Sydney-to-Hobart, off Shark Island in Sydney Harbour the race was on between the two rivals to be the first boat out of the heads. Skandia was first around the turning mark at Sydney Heads and held a small lead to the seamark. Instead of turning south, Skandia continued to sea with Zana following, one wag on a spectator boat was heard to remark that perhaps they were going to Hobart via Auckland.

Pale Ale Rager

Close behind was Nicorette with its radical canting keel and forward, retractable, canard rudder, that were to later fall victim to the pounding seas of Bass Strait, then came Sean Langman’s Grundig and George Snow’s old war horse, Brindabella. In the moderate southeasterly it was one of the quickest starts to a Hobart with the 56 starters all out the heads in just over half-an-hour.

Langman tacked early and set a course down the coast, mainly to get out of the dirty air of the bigger boats and the washing machine wash set up by the hundreds of spectator boats that were following the fleet to sea. With the fleet following the leaders, Langman at the time thought that he may have made a mistake and there was another mark further to sea. His decision proved to be the right one. At the sked on the first night, to everyone’s surprise, including Wharington and Thwaites, Grundig was leading the fleet down the New South Wales coast.

Langman’s much-modified 66-footer is virtually a big version of a skiff and the eight crew included a number of well-known skiff sailors, like helmsman Chris Nicholson. Grundig is a noted downwind flyer and was not expected to keep up with the bigger boats in the southerly headwind.

Back in the fleet, Geoff Ross was leading the IMS division in Yendys and was slugging it out with Matt Allen’s Ichi Ban with fellow CYCA director Roger Hickman calling the shots. Yendys had won the IMS division of the Rolex Trophy series in December and was hot favourite for a Hobart win. Ichi Ban had finished second to Yendys in the IMS division and Matt Allen was determined to turn the tables.

Ross had a talented international crew onboard his new Yendys, formerly Banco Espirito Santos, the top IMS-rated grand prix offshore racer in the Mediterranean in 2002.

Yendys’ crew included Australia’s Grant Simmer, who now heads the Alinghi America’s Cup team in Switzerland, Volvo Ocean Race skippers Lisa and Neal McDonald and Spanish navigator Juan Vila.

Also sailing well in the early stages of the race on handicap was the oldest boat in the race, Love and War, in which owner Peter Kurts won the race in 1974 and again in 1978.

Skandia and Zana virtually matched-raced all the way to Hobart with Skandia’s sailing master, Ian ‘Barney’ Walker calling the shots. As Zana’s sailing master, Peter Sutton, said later: “It became an incredible match race in the open ocean.”

There were some anxious moments for Skandia’s crew when a steering idler pulley pulled off its mount and the helmsman was forced to steer with the opposite wheel until it was screwed back in place. With four boat builders in the crew it was a simple matter.
After hitting a sunfish in Bass Strait Skandia stopped dead and started to go sideways. The crew had time to drop the sails and assess any damage before continuing.

The biggest scare was when Skandia parked in Storm Bay after rounding Tasman Island and Zana sailed up to within three boat lengths before she too parked. Tactitian Walker broke his golden rule of covering the opposition. But he had been here before in the same situation in 2001 on the Volvo 60 Team News Corp and had been caught out. Skandia was tacked to the south away from the rocky shoreline and as expected found a puff of breeze. The huge Code 0 headsail was hoisted, Zana failed to cover immediately and Skandia got the break, accelerating away to the Iron Pot at the entrance to the Derwent River. As Skandia entered the river, she faced a slow beat to windward in a light northerly that was backing to the west.

Zana reached the Iron Pot 34 minutes behind but managed to close the gap at the finish to just 14 minutes. As Grant Wharington observed the race was not over until the big Aussie boat got the gun at the finish off Battery Point.


For Walker it was his sixth Hobart win and third line honours. He sailed on Alfa Romeo last year and the recording breaking Nokia in 1999. The unassuming champion yachtsman said in Hobart that the race was more mentally tiring than any race he had done. He admitted that there was nothing in the boat speed between the two boats and except for the decision to tack away in Storm Bay, it was crucial that Skandia covered Zana the whole way. It is a tactic that has paid off for Walker even in the Volvo round the world race.

Stewart Thwaites was naturally disappointed. He had built the boat to win the Hobart race. “Being that close is hard in some ways because you go through all the ‘what ifs’, but at the same time it’s better than being a long way back,” Thwaites said. “I am definitely happy with second, but I was after line honours.

“We had our chances but they covered us everytime we tried something and all credit to them.”

Meanwhile back on the race track, Grundig lost any chance of rounding up the leaders when the flying 66-footer hit a sunfish off Green Cape at the entrance to Bass Strait. The impact disabled the leeward steering rudder and meant that the boat had to be steered by trimming the sails and with the second upwind rudder. It was a tough call especially when the eight-man crew had to also take it in turns to bail out the water that was pouring into through the damaged bearing. Despite this Grundig still finished third over the line.

Green Cape holds some form of hoodoo for Langman. In the past he has been forced from the race with damage and it has all occurred near Green Cape that marks the border between New South Wales and Victoria. He has christened the area the ‘Grundig Triangle’ likening it to the infamous Bermuda Triangle.

Sean Langman admits that the 66-footer has been developed as far as it can go and is now looking at a 75-footer built to the same skiff concept.

Bass Strait also put paid to any thoughts of a place for the highly modified Nicorette. In the large seas stood up by the south bound current against the sou’wester, the 80-footer, which won line honours in 2000, had its bow-mounted canard foil torn off, then, about three hours later, the brackets holding the canting keel cracked. With her race over she headed for Eden.

Another casualty was Dysons Cobb & Co, the former Farr 47 Ninety Seven that finished first across the line in the storm-battered 1993 race and became the smallest yacht in 30 years to take line honours. It was the 10th anniversary of that win and owner Chris Dare, from Sandringham Yacht Club in Melbourne, had updated the 47-footer with a new carbon-fibre mast. Dare had invited two members of the 1993 winning crew, Adam Brown from Sydney and Darren Senogles from Gosford to join him for the anniversary race.

Plans for a dockside celebration went pear shape when running under spinnaker before the 15-20 knot northerly she dropped the mast about 30 nautical miles northeast of Schouten Island off the Tasmanian east coast.

Back in the fleet there was a race within a race between the six Sydney 38s. Bruce Taylor was pushing Chutzpah hard to keep two-times winner Lou Abrahams in Another Challenge behind him. At one stage Abrahams, a veteran of now 41 Hobarts, reported that his Sydney 38 was surfing at 19.6 knots and “just sitting on rails”. Taylor won the tussle and placed third overall in IRC handicap, but the ultimate prize – an overall win – that he has been trying so hard for over the past 22 years – has once again eluded him.

Five of the Sydney 38s all finished within an hour of each other while the sixth, Dodo, retired to Eden with mainsail damage.

Ichi Ban won the tussle with Yendys to be first to Hobart but lost out by about an hour on IMS handicap. For Ichi Ban’s sailing master, Roger Hickman, it was a typically tough Hobart. Although he enjoyed the competition, it was the most frustrating rounding of Tasman Island that he has ever done. “We had 16 sail changes across Storm Bay to the Iron Pot and only four all the way from Sydney to Tasman Island,” he said.

The stage is now set for the 60th running of this classic ocean race in December this year – and there are a number of owners and crews with some unfinished business.


Five sailors, two of them women, were rewarded for personal achievements in the Sydney-to-Hobart Race.

Michael Green, sailing master on Quest; Phil Eadie, navigator on Ragamuffin; and Kim Jaggar, watch captain on Kaz were presented with Tasmanian Government medallions to mark having sailed in 25 Sydney-to-Hobart races.

Michael Green’s father, the late Peter Green, sailed in 35 Hobart races and this was the first time in the history of the event that a father and son had sailed in 25 or more races.

The two women, Felicity Nelson, who sailed on Impeccable and Sally Grodon, who was a crew-member on Ichi Ban, received medallions for each having competed in 10 Sydney-Hobarts.

Sydney yachtsman, Tony Cable, sailed his 40th Hobart onboard Witchdoctor and joined Victorian Lou Abrahams (41) and John Bennetto (43) as the first three yachtsmen to have sailed in 40 races.

The Governor of Tasmania, Mr Richard Butler, presented the Illingworth Trophy for line honours to Grant Wharington, owner/skipper of Skandia, while Richard de Leyser, general manager of Rolex Australia, presented Wharington with a Rolex Yachtmaster watch and the Tattersalls Cup and a Rolex Yachtmaster to Michael Spies, skipper of overall winner, First National Real Estate.