Escaping the coldest winter in Australia’s southern states since the 1940s, many of the yachtsmen who fled north from NSW and Victoria for the 2008 Audi Hamilton Island Race Week were in for something of a surprise.
The less-than-tropical temperatures that greeted them as they descended to the island’s airport tarmac had more than a few wondering whether they should at least have packed a sweatshirt for the week. But those with a longer memory might perhaps have seen the symmetry in the untypical weather for this silver jubilee regatta, recalling the howling winds and rain of the first Hamilton Island Race Week some 25 years earlier.
Weather aside, there could be few comparisons drawn between this year’s event and the first running of Race Week. Since its inception in 1983, the event has grown from a good idea cooked up by some mates for a spot of warm weather racing in mid-winter, to a must-do regatta and getaway with wide appeal for serious racers, part time cruisers and their respective families.
For the yachties who arrived on Hamilton Island without a race under their belts since the summer, the first two days would have proven hard yard. With 18-20 knot breezes blowing on Saturday and Sunday, often across a lumpy wind-against-tide chop, there were more than a few crew looking stiff and sore by the beginning of their ‘working week’. On Sunday, three crew members ended up with more significant reminders of the breezy start to the regatta, but fortunately none of the injuries were too serious.
However, the winds eased in the second half of the week and in the lighter breezes the pressure turned on the tacticians and navigators to outwit the tricky tides and currents that run between the spectacular islands that form the scenic race circuit for the week. Adding more complexity to the mix, race organisers offered a ‘navigator’s choice’ on Wednesday, leaving crew to decide which of two routes they would take for the return leg home.
One of the common hazards of Race Week is the many whales and calves that ply these waters during their birthing season, but this year the close encounters were mostly struck with more inert objects. The famous former maxi racer, Condor had barely started the Round The Islands Race on Sunday when she ran hard aground on Plum Pudding Island.
Likewise, well-known sailing personality, Robert ‘Robbo’ Robertson had to call on the services of Club Marine’s accredited surveyor, Sven Runow – just ashore from Wild Oats X’s own race – to evaluate a dented keel and a split rudder from a heavy grounding.
But the hazard of the week was provided by a hidden underwater ledge just south of the aptly-named Surprise Rock; a small, but impressive outcrop which rises from the depths some miles north of Pentecost Island. Marked as a rounding point for several of the fleets racing around the islands on Day Three, it was destined to stop at least three yachts firmly in their tracks. Shockwave 5 bounced off the ledge, but both Quest and Living Doll suffered more bruising encounters.
First prize for crash recovery went to Quest, which hit the ledge with such speed that helmsman, Jamie MacPhail flattened the entire port steering pedestal as he was thrown forward. Assisting a dazed MacPhail to his feet, the crew had Quest in racing mode again within minutes, losing so little time that she was still able to secure a second place on the podium.
Luck was not with Quest all week though, being beaten to the IRC Grand Prix Division win for the regatta by Alan Whiteley’s TP 52 Cougar 2 and losing the season’s IRC Championship by a mere one point to Peter Sorensens’ Philosopher’s Club in the last race of the week.
At the front of the IRC fleet, an intriguing week-long tussle unfolded between the twin Reichel Pugh 66-footers of Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats X – smaller sibling to the triple Sydney Hobart-winning Wild Oats XI – and Peter Harburg’s newly-acquired and upgraded Black Jack, named in honour of Formula 1 Racing World Champion, ‘Black’ Jack Brabham.
Bob Oatley may own Hamilton Island, but Peter Harburg was to own the bragging rights for the most line honours wins during the week, with Black Jack crossing the line first five times, against Wild Oats X’s two bullets.
Further down the course in IRC, a similar head-to-head battle was running all week between Ray Harris’s Beneteau Honeysuckle, skippered by Michael Spies, and the very elegant Archambault Alegria, owned by Rodney Jones. In the end, Honeysuckle outsailed Alegria, with Jones settling for being a member of the winning Australian team that defeated the New Zealanders in the inaugural South Pacific Cup.
KIWI cup contenders
Despite their sailing successes on every front, from America’s Cup campaigns to boat building, and their contributions of crew to yachts in virtually every grand prix racing event around the world, Kiwi yachts in any numbers have been notably absent from international grand prix racing over recent years, so it was gratifying to see a three-boat team cross the Tasman to contest the South Pacific Cup.
The team of Carrera, Wired and Pussy Galore were, however, mostly luckless against the Australian team of Yendys, Alegria and Living Doll, but perhaps the consolation of their countrymen winning the Bledisloe Cup yet again will spur the Kiwi yachtsmen to return for another tilt at the yachting equivalent.
The largest yacht in the fleet, the 80-footer Shockwave 5, made her debut appearance at Race Week in 2000 under the ownership of another successful Kiwi yachtsman, Neville Crichton. Eight years and several owners later, she returned to Hamilton Island, having been purchased by Andrew Short. She was sailed across the Pacific from the east coast of the USA just in time for a group of doyens of the racing scene to shake down the Club Marine-sponsored maxi in her return to Australian waters.
Andrew Short, who has been campaigning the veteran Brindabella over the last few seasons, seemed well-pleased with his new acquisition, taking a very relaxed approach to Race Week with his wife and small daughter aboard on several days.
“We plan to fit the boat with a bowsprit, which extends our sail area and gives us more flexibility downwind without much effect on her rating, so we’re looking forward to some great racing this summer,” said Short, who plans to compete in this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart race.
There are not many occasions on which a photographer can jump aboard a racing maxi and expect to be able to capture the action during the race itself.
So when the 80-foot Reichel Pugh-designed Shockwave 5 arrived at Hamilton Island only days after being sailed from the USA, I took the opportunity of Club Marine’s sponsorship of the boat to ask owner, Andrew Short whether I could join his team for the day. With the boat in shakedown mode, Andrew seemed remarkably relaxed and conceded to the request without the expected dire warnings for me to stay well clear of the action.
Eighty feet is a lot of boat in anyone’s language, but when you step aboard a maxi like Shockwave 5, it is the scale of the equipment that makes you realise what that really means in sailing terms.
Spinnaker poles are already old technology in these days of bowsprit-rigged assymetrical downwind sails, but aboard this speedy eight-year-old the massive pole stretches the entire length of the foredeck and despite its light-weight carbon fibre construction, requires three crew to manhandle into position on every spinnaker hoist.
No push-button hydraulic power or canting keels either aboard Shockwave 5; just a handy array of three coffee grinder pedestals in the cockpit to be operated by six crew at each tack, before they leap to the gunwales and add their weight to the rest of the large crew hiking out through the guardrails.
Determined not to be a liability while I shoot images, I do my share of hiking on the rail for the windward legs and move quickly to the stern of the boat to capture the action in front of me as the spinnaker is hoisted and the staysail set.
The stern of these yachts is wide and open, but is no safe haven, with the large running blocks for the mainsheet and runners swinging threateningly through the air on each tack and gybe.
Putting my eye to the viewfinder on my camera, I receive a sharp smack across the back of the head from the mainsheet block, but out of embarrassment resist the temptation to feel for the lump that soon appears.
Running forward at the leeward mark to capture the spinnaker drop, I am suddenly overtaken by eight crew, who join the foredeck team to wrestle the massive cloud of sail to the deck before the boat rounds onto the next windward leg.
My ‘mentor’ for the day is Steve Byron who, when he’s not organising the bewildering array of halyards in the boat’s cockpit, is the managing director of Canberra’s busy airport.
Steve keeps a weather eye out for me and advises when and if I can move off the rail to take some more shots without invoking the ire of the afterguard at the back of the boat.
Shockwave is a little on the light side for crew on this particular day and so, after patiently watching me take hundreds of images and knowing that I’m not entirely unfamiliar with some of the work that needs to be done, Steve finally suggests that I might want to abandon my camera gear and lend a helping hand.
So, with the photo gear quickly stowed somewhere safe, I turn my hand to some familiar tasks, helping haul in spinnakers, tailing winches and, of course, like all good crew, hiking just that bit harder when my fellow photographers appear alongside in the media boat.
Principal Race Officer, Denis Thompson, whose team had a busy week supervising eleven separate yacht divisions every day, was impressed with the cruising fleet’s competition and camaraderie.
“While the big boats get most of the accolades, the strength of the regatta lies with the huge cruising fleet,” said Thompson, acknowledging the undeniable impact on the regatta of some 115 of the record-breaking fleet of 225 yachts that participated.
Such camaraderie was in ample evidence every day along the pontoons thick with cruising yachts; whilst the majority of the IRC crews were bound for the bar within an hour of finishing, most of the cruising crews, unconcerned with ‘big boat accolades’, could be found carousing, toasting and teasing each other every afternoon from the cockpits and decks of their boats until well past the sun’s descent behind Dent Island.
The cruising divisions with spinnakers honours went to Robert Vaughan’s magnificent Van Diemen, Mark Travis’s Full Frontal and Rosie Colahan’s Ingenue. Peter Cox’s Valhalla won the non-spinnaker division, while in PHS Peter Goldsworthy’s Getaway-Sailing.com, Peter Mosely’s Local Hero and Just Quietly, owned by Donald and Susan Swanson, were all in the winner’s circle.
In the large IRC fleet, Alan Whiteley’s Cougar II took out the IRC Grand Prix Division 1, with Honeysuckle, owned by Ray Harris, winning Division 2. Graham Jones’ Blue Water and Luke MacGrath’s Brookwater Golf came away with the gongs for IRC Premier Passage and IRC Passage, respectively.
While they had no trophy to show for their efforts, much praise was heaped on Peter Briggs and his crew aboard Hitchhiker, the winner of the inaugural Hamilton Island Race Week in 1983. Determined to sail at the silver jubilee, Briggs put Hitchhiker on the back of a truck from Perth and, with his crew, made a fine sight all week in their red sailing gear, matching their well turned-out former winner.
ON SHORE GALORE
Aside from the ever-increasing professionalism of the event’s race organisation, quite the most impressive change in Race Week over recent years has been the activity ashore. Once seen as something of a mid-winter escape for the lads to go sailing and perhaps share a drink or two, Audi Hamilton Island Race Week has evolved to a point where the range of attractions and activities ashore would do justice to a celebrity reality show.
Hardly an activity could be found that was not led by one famous name or another. Fashion designer, Collette Dinnigan kicked off the week by showing her Cruise Collection exclusively to the show’s invitees at the equally exclusive qualia resort.
One half of the famous ‘Woodies’, Todd Woodbridge spent almost as much time being photographed by the largely female participants in his popular coaching clinic than in teaching tennis.
Tele-celebs Scott Cam and Jamie Durie kept the girls in ‘domestic bliss’ at the Ladies’ Lunch and Gordon Tallis and Michael Kasprowicz seemed to attract more adults than kids to join their games of beach cricket and football. Meanwhile, John Eales regaled an attentive audience at Celebrity Chef, Matt Moran’s dinner with some hilarious and remarkably clean stories from the Wallabies’ dressing room.
Club Marine also made a colourful contribution to the week’s events, hosting a large welcome party on the first night. Held beside the Reef View Hotel’s swimming pool, the party featured an excellent band and two ‘silver statues’ seemingly standing on water in the middle of the pool, periodically breaking from their painfully static displays to strike another artistic pose. Rumours that the ‘statues’ were hotel staff, punished for lack of punctuality were thought to be just that. In addition, Club Marine sponsored the Welcome Street Party down at the marina later the same night.
Without doubt, the shore-based highlight of the week was the evening tickertape parade for the entire Olympic Sailing Team, just returned from Beijing with two gold and one silver medal. Led by the children that live on the island, the parade ran the length of Front Street, with the yachting fraternity laying on an enthusiastic welcome for their fellow sailors. After the official welcome on stage, as many adults as children were to be found seeking autographed shirts from the Olympians.
For kids and parents left ashore, there was no shortage of free activities to keep them well occupied, with options for children including face painting, kite making, candy floss and jumping castles. With the children distracted, parents could opt for more tranquil pastimes, such as massage or art classes. As ever, the Whitehaven Beach Party attracted a good turnout for those keen to share sun and sand with a few hundred others.
For anyone interested in keeping abreast of the action on the water, Race Week Television and Radio provided a humourous slant on the week’s sailing exploits and a daily newsletter was a popular freebie to be picked up with breakfast or coffee each morning on the way to the boat.
Front Street came to life each evening with the popular Oatley Wine Bar tent busy most nights (the Mudgee Tasting Platter was a winner). The stage pumped out a variety of music, fire jugglers mesmerised evening passers-by and the Eat Street stalls provided a quick and cheap food alternative to the island’s restaurants.
Not surprisingly with Audi as the principal regatta sponsor, cars featured large in the week’s activities, both off and on the water.
And how, might you ask, would a car feature in water-based activities?
The madcap crew of the soon-to-be-aired TV show, Australian Top Gear provided the answer to that question, attempting to ‘sail’ a heavily-modified 1980s Audi with a large outboard on the back across Dent Passage between Hamilton and Dent Islands. Judging by the fact that the ketch-rigged auto seemed unable to advance more than a few yards from the Hamilton Island shore, Audi will not be building yachts anytime soon.
Achieving rather greater success in cars and yachts were the participants in the Audi Driver Challenge; a combination of driving and sailing skills, the former on land this time. Each year the sailing division winner whose crew member has driven the quickest combined circuit times in the Audi R8 Driver Challenge – your reporter can confirm this is as much fun as he’s ever had in a car – stands to win an A4.
Considering how much income a competitor would have to part with to buy one of the sponsor’s products, this challenge seems to be a great leveler – two years ago, the car was won by a skipper who lived on his yacht and had to borrow a headsail just to compete in Race Week. This year’s winner, and skipper of the Dufour 385, Valhalla, was Peter Cox. Consistency on land and water is evidently more important than a fast boat and large bank account for this particular challenge.
Enjoying a similar windfall was ever-green former skiff sailor, Peter Sorensen, who won the overall IRC Points Championship – of which Race Week is the last event – a series that went down to the wire in the final race of the week, with Sorensen’s yacht, Philosopher’s Club (right) finally topping the podium.
For his season-long efforts, Sorensen was able to leave the regatta holding the keys of a brand new Audi Q7, remarking: “I cashed in my superannuation to buy the boat … the way the share market is going, this is much better!”
The sun was not as evident as it might have been, the temperatures were certainly less than tropical, but by the end of the week there appeared to be plenty of smiles amongst those climbing the stairs to the plane as they headed south for the last of the winter, the promise of another summer of sailing not as distant as it had seemed a week earlier.