Club Marine
 

Nicorette and Skandia along with AAPT and Brindabella manouvre on the Harbour on Boxing Day.

“When we hit the southerly storm on the second day, we just raced on, but we made barely 25 miles in the next 36 hours and we didn’t realize that the rest of the fleet behind us had reverted to cruising mode.”

Sixty years on, and a whole world later, Ray Richmond’s description of his experiences aboard John Illingworth’s Rani in the first Sydney to Hobart race in 1945 remain as current as ever.

For all of the technological advances in hull design, foil developments and exotic materials in the intervening years, the essential challenges of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race remain largely unchanged; prepare well, enjoy the fanfare ride down Sydney Harbour and, as the spectator boats fade away, hunker down for the tough ride south.

So it was that the 2004 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race would prove as much of a challenge as any of its 59 predecessors, with little more than half of the starters finally berthing in Hobart’s Constitution Dock.

Eventual retiree, Konica Minolta.
AAPT surfs toward second across the line.
Targe's race barely lasted two hours

The anniversary race drew 116 yachts to the start, with competitors having almost as many reasons for being there. From those with an eye to a win, to the must-do-it-once crews, veteran boats and skippers back again, cruisers enjoying their own class for the first time and even owners with a view to spreading a message, the appeal of the race remains broad.

In the latter category, polar expeditionary and environmental campaigner, Robert Swan entered his 67-foot BT Challenge The Active Factor. Skippered by Bret Perry and sporting sails made in part from reused PET bottles, the crew included a community initiative competition winner, Brett Austin from Newcastle. Brett is a former trampoline champion and non-sailor who had less than three weeks to learn the ropes, literally.

After a week of ominous Bureau of Meteorology forecasts that were progressively downgraded as Boxing Day loomed, the large fleet got the anniversary race away in ideal conditions from two lines on Sydney Harbour.

In a 12 knot northeaster and bright sunshine, AAPT led Konica Minolta and Skandia away from the eastern end of the northern line, whilst the newly launched Nicorette, favouring the western shore, gained first bragging rights. She led Skandia and Konica Minolta around the seaward mark by a mere three seconds, with AAPT snapping close at their heels.

The crew of Skandia abandon their stricken yacht.

With the prospect of a strong southerly change early on Monday morning, the fleet sought to gain maximum leverage from the building nor’easter. But barely two hours into the race, Stephen David’s 60 footer, Targé (formerly Wild Oats) limped into Botany Bay as the first retirement, with water-induced electrical problems affecting control of her canting keel.

By evening, the whole fleet was reporting ideal conditions, with the maxis surfing south at speeds up to 21 knots, enjoying a two knot following current and reaching Eden ahead of Nokia’s 1999 record time.

However, few were under any illusions that the dream run would last and the vexing decision for most tacticians was when to forego the benefit of offshore current, gybe for land and gain the optimum angle for the impending strong southwesterly.

Sure enough, by 6am on the Monday morning the front-runners were well reefed down and plugging into a 25-knot southwester entering Bass Strait, happy at least that they’d gained a bonus 40 miles south thanks to a three-hour delay in the predicted change.

By late afternoon, the retirements were already building as the bulk of the fleet reached the first decision point abreast of Eden. The yacht tracker soon showed that those in mid-fleet who had gybed early enough were forming a southward procession that hugged the NSW south coast.

As night fell, conditions worsened, with wind speeds reported at 45 knots and more, accompanied by steep 5 to 9 metre seas and painful hailstorms.

Yendys stands by one of Skandia’s liferafts.

With little prospect of any relief down the track for another two days, the tactical decision to close the mainland proved sound seamanship, allowing many to exercise the option of retiring to Eden or holding over in Twofold Bay to wait for better conditions before crossing the Strait. But for some, like the Sydney 38 Yeah Baby, it was just getting all too hard as she signed off “retired, heading to Sydney, no fun”.

One who was going to avoid boosting Eden’s summer tourism at all costs was Geoff Boettcher, racing his new Reichel Pugh designed Secret Men’s Business. “They call me The Mayor of Eden,” he said on finally arriving in Hobart. “I drew a big arc around Eden and said to the guys, ‘we’re not going in there!’.”

The drama at the front of the fleet was, however, only just beginning.

The summer-long tussle between the 98-foot super maxis Skandia and Konica Minolta was getting more intense as they crossed Bass Strait, with the boats almost neck-and-neck when both skippers decided they were well enough positioned to head for the lee of the north east coast of Tasmania.

The change of tack proved fateful for both, with the seemingly less threatening southerly swell leading to their combined downfalls within an hour of each other early on Tuesday morning, only a few miles short of calmer water.

First, Skandia reported she had fallen off the back of a large wave and was retiring with her hydraulic keel rams snapped and her keel jammed to port. An hour later, Konica Minolta radioed that she had “barrelled off a gi-normous wave” and the top of the keel tower had rotated forward, creasing the deck across the cabin top.

Both yachts unsuccessfully attempted to affect repairs, with Konica Minolta eventually retiring and motoring to Binnalong Bay, near St Helens.

(Clockwise from above) Love & War took out the 30 Year Veteran Class and IRC Div. E. Tilting at windmills. Barcardi from Victoria won the 20 Year Veteran Class. Outlaw pushes on.

But the drama on Skandia was to escalate as images from the ABC helicopter showed. With Yendys standing by, Skandia’s crew jumped into two liferafts, from which the water police boat, Van Diemen recovered them within minutes.

“I always expected that if this ever happened to me I would step up into a liferaft,” said a philosophical Grant Wharington later of his difficult decision to leave the boat whilst help was at hand.

It proved a wise decision; their concern that the keel, which was beginning to chop out the inside of the hull, would eventually break loose and the boat capsize transpired within hours of its abandonment. A tug was soon ordered out to retrieve Skandia, with the rebuild costs mounting by the day.

Meanwhile, Nicorette had worked steadily at recovering time on the two frontrunners across Bass Strait after a time-consuming spinnaker wrap the previous evening. Tactics called for short tacking in a narrow band down the north Tasmanian coast in 20-35 knots of wind, where the sea state was less dangerous and her speed optimized.

On hearing of the fate of the two super maxis, and with a 50-mile lead on the, now second-placed AAPT, Ludde Ingvall throttled back a little, mindful of last year’s experience that to win, first you have to finish.

After two days and 16 hours, Nicorette crosses the line.
Ludde Ingvall and crew celebrate a hard-won line honours victory.

And finish she did. Having followed the coast from Wineglass Bay, Nicorette’s skipper completed ‘Ludde’s scenic tour of the Tasmanian Coast’ by sailing inside Maria Island, hooking around Tasman Island, across Storm Bay and reaching up the Derwent River in a steady southerly at almost 12 knots just before dawn on Wednesday morning.

Nicorette crossed the line after two days and 16 hours at sea, 21 hours short of Nokia’s 1999 race record, but in less than half the time taken by Rani and crew 60 years before. “It was a good trial for the boat,” said a happy Ingvall of Nicorette’s first offshore race, adding, “this is the two toughest days you can spend in ocean racing – it feels like three weeks.”

There had been plenty of scepticism about Nicorette’s prospects prior to the race, with many doubting that a boat straight out of the box would last the course. Indeed, Ingvall admitted, “the boys were boatbuilding all the way down the course”. But he praised designer, Alex Simonis for his collaborative and innovative approach in “designing the boat around the keel”.

Both Ingvall and the retiring skippers of the two keel-damaged super maxis agreed that building to the 30 metre upper limit rule posed some very real sailing and design challenges in the sort of hollow-backed seas commonly encountered in this race.

Sean Langman and fellow skiff sailors aboard downwind flyer AAPT showed they also have what it takes to handle a heavy upwind track, surviving a major knockdown and debris collision before finishing second across the line, more than two hours ahead of George Snow’s twelve-year-old Brindabella.

For a while it seemed Nicorette would take out the line honours and handicap double, but with some apt symmetry the British/Greek owned Aera was to take the Tattersall’s Cup for overall IRC handicap winner, 60 years after Englishman John Illingworth’s win.

Jez Fanstone and the crew of Aera celebrate another Tattersall’s Cup/IRC Handicap victory for Britain, 60 years after Englishman John Illingworth’s inaugural race win.
Owner Robert Swan, sailing rookie Brett Austin and skipper Bret Perry of The Active Factor, celebrate their Hobart arrival.

Aera, a Jason Kerr 55 owned by Nick Lykiardopulo and skippered by Volvo Round The World yachtsman, Jez Fanstone crossed the Strait in good shape, enjoying an arm-wrestle with Matt Allen’s Ichi Ban over much of the race. Fanstone banked on a southeasterly change and took the punishment of heavy seas, staying well east of the rhumbline down the Tasmanian coastline.

The decision paid handsomely. When the predicted shift arrived, she was able to lay Tasman Island, leaving Ichi Ban further east in less favourable breeze and putting Aera in an almost unassailable position for overall handicap honours as she reached rapidly across Storm Bay and up the Derwent.

Further up the coast, three of the five Sydney 38s left racing from the original 11 starters were running neck-and-neck on parallel courses east of the rhumbline, all waiting for the left-hander that would let them close land.

Bruce Taylor, a veteran of 24 Hobarts and last year’s class winner, used all of his guile and experience to judge the time and place, picking the change and hooking Chutzpah into a westerly land breeze and flat water overnight to reach south parallel to the coast. Meantime, Rupert Henry’s Team Lexus and Another Challenge, skippered by 21-year-old, Chris Leuwin and crewed by his Melbourne University colleagues, were still trying to exit a dying southerly and sloppy seas further offshore. Chutzpah finished an hour ahead of Team Lexus, with Another Challenge a creditable third.

John Woodruff and Eric Robinson’s Seriously Ten was one of only three of the five Volvo 60s to finish the race, taking out her class (despite a one-hour penalty for missing radio reporting) and winning PHS overall ahead of Nokia and DHL Getaway.

The weather gate closed out on the third evening as the wind died on the coast south of Wineglass Bay. Any prospects of a challenge from the non-finishers were removed, with Aera being declared the IRC Division A and overall IRC winner on New Year’s Eve morning.

“The Blue Brick”, as Howard De Torres describes his robust Nips and Tux, won IRC Division C from First National Real Estate and Chutzpah, with Loki winning Division B from Interim; the first Tasmanian boat across the line. The evergreen Love and War won IRC Division E and the 30 Year veteran class, with Bacardi winning the 20 Year veterans. Tasmanian boat, Pippin took second in both IRC Division E and 20 Year Veteran classes.

The Active Factor finished fourth in IRC Division B, with Hobart-initiate, Brett Austin remarking with unintended resonance for a trampoline champion: “It was a wonderful experience; three days of incredible highs and lows.”

The disappointment for those unable to finish was put into sharp perspective as the scale of human tragedy from the Asian tsunami of Boxing Day unfolded during the race. Stewart Thwaites spoke for many when asked how he felt about his boat’s retirement: “I’m coming to terms with the situation pretty easily,” he said, adding “after all, this was only a boat race”.

Inevitably, comparisons of this year’s race and its attrition rate were made with that of 1998 – even race-hardened veterans and former race winners such as Syd Fischer, Lou Abrahams and Geoff Ross had been forced to retire – but in the end most agreed it was simply a race that had lived up to its 60-year reputation as one of the world’s toughest ocean racing challenges.

As the luckless, but philosophical Grant Wharington said while facing a $2 million rebuild for Skandia: “I’ll be back; after all it’s the Great Race.”

Such sentiments would doubtless have pleased John Illingworth.