For thousands of spectators watching from the numerous vantage points around Sydney Harbour, the start of the 1998 and 2008 Rolex Sydney Hobart yacht races would have seemed little different; on both occasions sun and a freshening northeast sea breeze saw fleets of similar size tack down the harbour before streaming south off the NSW coast in good shape under spinnakers.
But there the similarities between the two races end.
Amongst the participants in the 1998 race, a sense of nervous anticipation was astir. The crews of the 115 yachts that turned south at the seaward mark off Sydney Heads that year were well aware from the race forecast that they would shortly be facing a fierce southerly battering, for which this tough race is renowned.
But on that Boxing Day, few had any insight as to how fierce that storm would ultimately be and none had any inkling of the calamitous events that would unfold, with the loss of six yachtsmen, the sinking of five boats and the rescue of 55 crew. Of the fleet of 115 yachts that left Sydney Harbour, only 44 completed that ill-fated race.
While many memories of those fateful events lingered in the air at the start line of the 2008 race, there was a more buoyant atmosphere amongst the fleet, anticipating a fast and largely benign race south to Hobart. Happily, for the most part, that proved to be the case.
Renowned marine weather forecaster, Roger ‘Clouds’ Badham provides advisory weather services to yachtsman all around the world, so for those skippers and owners of 40 to 50-footers, Badham’s informal pre-race weather briefing on the seawall adjoining the Cruising Yacht Club on race day held some encouraging news.
Badham believed that the larger boats would eventually outrun the strong northeast breeze that would race them south over the first 24 hours and that the progressively strengthening northwesterlies in Bass Strait on the second day would favour the 40 and 50-footers for a handicap win.
The predicted excellent downwind running conditions were enjoyed by the fleet on the first night at sea when, shortly after dark, memories of the 1998 race came quickly to the fore with a distress call from Graeme Ainley and John Williams’ Farr 53 Georgia.
A high-speed collision with an unknown object had resulted in the fitting between the hull and the rudder being seriously breached. Without steerage and with the crew unable to stem the water pouring in below decks, the skipper made the call to abandon the boat.
In a very smooth operation that reflected well on the rigorous Safety at Sea survival training that crews have been required to undertake since the 1998 race, all crew transferred safely by life raft to the 60ft Telcoinabox Merit.
Along with the American yacht Ragtime, Merit had been on standby since sighting the flares and hearing Georgia’s mayday call. As the last of the crew was transferred, Georgia’s navigation lights were barely visible above water and the boat sank within half an hour of the rescue (see sidebar story).
Meantime, triple line honours winner, Wild Oats XI was facing a serious challenge to her quest for a record-breaking fourth consecutive win. As she raced down the NSW coast and across Bass Strait in conditions to which she was ideally suited, her older arch rival, Grant Wharington’s 98ft Skandia was keeping her at bay, leading the fleet for most of the race’s 628 nautical miles and causing much bewildered speculation amongst those in the know as to how this could be.
Had Skandia stripped down her sail wardrobe to save weight? Had Wild Oats XI suffered damage that they weren’t revealing? With both boats remaining largely uncontactable for much of the first 24 hours, it was, in the end, a 2m shark that was to provide the answer.
On the second night, the shark became entangled in Wild Oats XI’s rear rudder, forcing the crew to stop and back up the boat in order to free the dazed creature.
According to skipper Mark Richards, the release of the shark must also have removed some other debris that he was convinced was slowing the boat from the moment she left Sydney Harbour.
“All of a sudden, Wild Oats XI was back to her old self and we took off. We were going faster and within a half hour we were ahead of Skandia,” said Richards after the race.
Skandia’s skipper, Grant Wharington was convinced that Wild Oats XI’s new-found advantage simply resulted from sailing around the ‘hole’ in which Skandia had found herself drifting off Tasmania’s east coast. Whatever the cause, from that point on Wild Oats XI pulled away from Skandia, finishing just over an hour ahead of her rival. Once more, Wild Oats XI took out the JH Illingworth Trophy for line honours, two hours short of her 2005 record time.
As the race moved into its second day and the big boats at the front of the fleet ran out of puff, Roger Badham’s pre-race forecast was proving ever more accurate and it soon became apparent that the overall handicap win would fall somewhere in the 50-footer range, probably with Bob Steel’s TP52 Quest.
The only thing standing in Steel’s way was a potentially fast finish by Chris Welsh’s restored American Yacht Ragtime, but the boat, which had the distinction, when previously named Infidel, of being refused entry to the race in the 1960s for being too radical in design and construction, wasn’t quite up to the challenge. So, on day three, Steel was handed the Tattersall’s Cup and another Rolex watch to match his 2002 race-winning timepiece.
The fast running conditions of this year’s race suited the 50-footers well, especially those like Quest, which was designed to the TP52 rule (52ft long with heavy keel bulbs and large asymmetrical spinnakers). These boats were regularly making speeds of more than 25 knots.
Michael Green, Quest’s sailing master, described water regularly running deep across the deck each time they caught up with the next wave at high speed. “He was a bit of a sook,” said Green, taunting his co-helmsman Peter Messenger standing beside him on Constitution Dock. “He took the kite down when the wind reached 46 knots.”
When Messenger laughed at his colleague’s gibe, Green confessed with a smile that he was down below at the time and very relieved that the spinnaker was taken down.
“I was lying in my bunk and it was so noisy. I just kept thinking: ‘This is going to end badly if we don’t do something soon’. We’d already blown one kite after the first night; it simply gave up from overwork!”
Even for those older boats better suited to upwind conditions, the excitement factor was high. Race veteran, Jim Holley’s 25-year-old 40-footer, Aurora reached speeds of more than 19 knots simply under poled-out headsail and mainsail during the second day at sea.
“It was a great race,” said Holley, also revealing the sort of race-won wisdom that has seen him finishing the last 10 Sydney Hobarts. “It’s exciting stuff, but when you’re down below and you can hear the young crew ‘wahooing’ on deck, you know it’s time to get up there and take some sail down!”
There can be few other sports in which such physically challenging conditions can be actively experienced at the age of 86, but this remarkable feat was achieved this year by John Walker aboard his evergreen 33ft Impeccable.
As the oldest person to complete the race, he was greeted on the dock with a cake to celebrate his 25th race south. This modest race veteran, who lives up to his name by walking every day, is keeping his options open on another tilt at the sail classic.
“I have said many times before that this is the last one and I am saying the same now,” he said.
Eleven overseas yachts were entered in the race, with Swiss yacht Pachamama incorporating the event in a round-the-world passage to promote an environmental message to schoolchildren. In the end, the Pachamama crew chose discretion as the better part of valour and opted to retire after a layover in Eden to see out the increasingly heavy conditions.
Two Dutch yachts, Pinta M and Winsome made the very expensive commitment to the race, the entire venture reputedly costing Pinta M’s skipper Atse Blei in the order of $160,000. Despite being beaten across the line by his colleagues and Fastnet Race rivals aboard Winsome after Pinta M ran out of breeze almost in sight of the finish line, Blei was in a jovial mood at Constitution Dock.
“We spent two hours going nowhere only three miles short of the finish line,” he explained. “When we did eventually find the wind, we were at least the first boat across the line under spinnaker. But what idiot finishes an ocean race in a river?” he laughed, taking an appreciative swig of Tasmanian beer and echoing a sentiment all too often expressed by the luckless ensnared by the Derwent’s notoriously fickle winds.
Asked if he might return next year, Blei seemed quite enthused at the prospect. “This is a wonderful race, well run and the event gets great exposure. Besides, if I leave the boat here and come back again next year, I’ll get two for the price of one!”
HARD LUCK STORIES
There are hard luck stories aplenty in this race and while Georgia’s was the worst this year, others also had their share of misfortune.
Returning to the race after a long restoration and protracted legal battle following a previous incident just after the start of the 2002 race, Tasmanian boat Valheru retired only minutes after the start following another serious collision. Ian Kiernan’s Sanyo Maris retired with a broken boom fitting on the first night and pre-race favourite, Quantum Racing was nursed to Hobart after a collision with an underwater object took away most of her rudder. Adding to the tales of woe was Shogun, which made it all the way to Hobart only to be told she was disqualified for a startline incident.
Eden Eddy seemed to be the subject of much pre-race discussion. Not, as might be thought, the name of a local character from Twofold Bay, but rather a large counter current off the coast at Eden – which previous experience suggested needed to be skirted to seaward. It was to play a large part in determining Quest’s eventual win.
Watching the forecast on the first night at sea, Quest’s team noticed with surprise that there was wind projected inside the eddy. Taking an educated gamble, they gybed back towards the coast inside the eddy, travelling an extra 12 miles in the process, but in strong breeze, before heading quickly back out to sea to consolidate the gains they had made. From there on, Quest was to stay within range of the handicap win amongst the highly competitive 50-footers, which were to occupy the top four places on handicap.
“You just have to sail these boats fast downwind, even if you have to cover extra miles to get the right wind,” said Michael Green, referring to the very fast TP52s. “In total, we probably sailed 30 nautical miles more than our competition in this race.”
While Quest was to win the Tattersall’s Cup, for a while the fast 40-footers were posing a serious challenge. Bruce Taylor’s Chutzpah and Bill Wild’s Wedgetail were enjoying a ding dong battle down the track, although both were to be beaten to the IRC divisional win by Ragtime, after she received redress to compensate for the time she spent in her standby role during the rescue of Georgia’s crew.
Both Wedgetail and Chutzpah were designed for just the sort of weather experienced this year and Taylor, who in his 27 years of participation in this race has seen major design progressions, clearly enjoys the new breed of boat.
“These are fabulous, fun boats to sail; much less physical than the old IOR boats,” he said, recalling some of his former yachts. “In these sorts of conditions in the older boats, you would often have to stand on the wheel spokes to hold the boat on course (but) the new boats are much easier to steer. Things also happen much faster, so you really have to concentrate. Falling off the back of a wave in these new boats is like falling out of a pair of waterskis.”
Many of the smaller boats arriving on Day Four had experienced both calms and strong winds in the run to Tasman Island and on to the Derwent River. Amongst those was Club Marine-backed Seahold Perie Bannou II, skippered by five-times world circumnavigator Jon Sanders. The boat had been extensively restored and trucked across from Western Australia for the race start. “We have been accused of being the mass murderers of thousands of insects,” said Sanders. “The boat was plastered with them when it arrived in Sydney.”
Sanders and his crew – minus his co-skipper and fellow circumnavigator David Dicks, who contracted pneumonia just before the race – had a strong run south, but in conditions that did not suit the boat, finishing in just over four days.
With the fleet all safely in port by the afternoon of January 31, the final handicap positions could be confirmed earlier than usual.
Fittingly, the two yachts that had assisted in Georgia’s rescue received redress for the time lost, with Telcoinabox Merit winning PHS Division 1 and PHS overall, while the radical classic Ragtime took the handicap honours in IRC Division 2.
Despite a broken rudder, Quantum Racing won IRC Division 0, Quest winning Division 1 and the Tattersall’s Cup for IRC Overall. Tow Truck and Winsome won IRC Divisions 3 and 4. The restored 43-footer, Lloyds Brokers – Too Impetuous and Dutch yacht, Winsome won PHS Divisions 2 and 3 respectively. Morris Finance Cinquante was the fastest of the six Sydney 38s that started the race and the indomitable Pippin won the Cruising Division.
With the New Year soon to be welcomed in, thoughts turned back 10 years during a moving dockside tribute to the memory of the six sailors who perished in the 1998 race and for all those who died participating in the race over its 64-year history.
The tribute echoed many aspects of the post-race reflections in 1998. With family members of those lost during the race present, the Sailor’s Farewell was once more recited and the commodores of the two organising yacht clubs laid a wreath in the harbour as they had a decade earlier.
Many lessons have since been learned and new practices applied to this classic race, which is rightly placed at the forefront of the world’s most rigorously managed ocean races.
Christmas Day is a nervous time for crews in the lead-up to any Sydney Hobart race, and in 1998 the pre-race forecast gave most of us reason to be particularly anxious. Heavy gale force winds were predicted to greet the fleet at sea late on the first night after a fast run south in front of a building northeaster.
The start of the race was to belie the events ahead, with sunshine and a gentle, but building sea breeze seeing the fleet safely out of the harbour. As that Saturday afternoon wore on into the evening, the increasing northeaster gave the fleet fast downwind running conditions that became progressively more spectacular as the wind built towards 30 knots.
Aboard Syntegra we had already blown out one spinnaker and by nightfall the entire crew was stacked at the back of the boat, with two people required on the tiller to steer a straight line through the waves of unbelievably warm water that increasingly ran deep across the deck.
Surreal scenes played out in the dark as ever-larger bolts of lightning lit up snapshot images of boats careering alongside us or disappearing suddenly behind us as they broached in the wild conditions.
Ironically, we were to have the ‘good fortune’ of a major spinnaker wrap close to midnight and in the exhausting hours it took us to wrestle the tangled mess to the deck, we fell back behind the other 40-footers hurtling into the maelstrom that was rapidly brewing in Bass Strait.
By mid-morning on Sunday, the forecast 40-50 knot southerly and rapidly building seas were already being exceeded and we progressively reefed down to the storm jib, with two reefs in the main as we headed into Bass Strait, resorting to a storm jib only as conditions became increasingly severe.
Without our masthead instruments – lost in our spinnaker wrap the previous evening – we had no way of telling the wind speed, but it is impossible to forget the awesome images as we headed south through a snowfield of sweeping waves and spume in what must, by then, have been at least 60-knot winds.
For safety, only two crew remained on deck at any time; one steering, the other calling the waves. By then our afterguard was already contemplating whether to continue, when the first of a rapidly growing number of distress calls came over the VHF.
When the 40ft Sword of Orion broke with radio reporting rules to reveal that they were experiencing 70-80 knots in Bass Strait and to advise those that could turn back to do so, our skipper made the decision to head for shelter. A heavy fall for our navigator, resulting in suspected broken ribs, simply added further impetus to the decision. Shortly after we heard her message, Sword of Orion was rolled and abandoned, with the loss of British yachtsman Glynn Charles.
Just managing a reciprocal course northward, we eventually reached Eden without incident at nightfall and chose to lie alongside a barge in Twofold Bay in the hope of resuming racing when the weather abated.
The next morning broke in incongruously bright sunshine and as we dried out clothing and started repairs on a long list of damaged gear, each radio news report revealed the true extent of the tragedy at sea. Meanwhile, a growing parade of badly damaged yachts limped to Eden Pier, visible from our strangely detached island in the middle of the bay.
We sat in silence and disbelief as we heard the toll–six dead, 50 airlifted to safety, yachts abandoned and the fate of many others still unknown. Our relief at our own good fortune was coloured with a deep sadness and shock that our fellow yachtsmen had lost their lives, one known to one our crew. Gratefully, we rang our relieved loved ones and reassured them we were safe.
By midday we decided to return to sea and, in a rare moment of humour, took up race veteran Lou Abrahams’ challenge to start the Eden to Hobart Yacht Race, as he too steered his yacht seaward.
While the wind was still blowing strongly from the south as we headed nervously back into Bass Strait, it was hard to believe that such fury was so quickly spent, and we crossed the Strait and headed down the Tasmanian coast in progressively smoother seas and easing winds.
Our good fortune was brought home to us the following morning in a windless and sunlit dawn off Maria Island. In the strange stillness, a loud bang rang out as our starboard running backstay parted. We could only contemplate the consequences had it happened as we’d first entered Bass Strait.
And so eventually to Hobart in the early morning of the next day, where we were astonished to see a strange flotilla of barely 20 boats of all sizes and ages berthed at Constitution Dock; a flotilla that was only ever to reach 44 boats of the 115 that started the race.
Once ashore, numerous stories of tragedy and dramatic rescues were exchanged amongst crew and spread pages deep in every newspaper. The owner of the race-winning maxi Sayonara, Larry Ellison seemed genuinely harrowed by the experience and many crew were to be seen heavily bandaged or on crutches around the dock.
Word was soon around that a memorial would be held for those lost in the race and we donned our crew shirts and joined the large crowd of yachtsmen and local people who came to pay their respects.
As we gathered at the dockside, aircraft flew overhead in the Missing Man formation. Family and fellow yachtsmen spoke haltingly of the lost, club officials laid wreaths in the water and tears welled up for many as a Sailors Farewell was recited:
We will miss you always
We will remember you always
We will learn from the tragic circumstances of your deaths
May the everlasting voyage be blessed with calm seas and gentle breezes
May you never have to reef or change a headsail at night
May your bunk always be dry
To us you will always be family and we wish you farewell.
What was the closing of a first chapter in these tragic events was actually the beginning of a long volume of sometimes painful truths exposed and lessons learned that, 10 years on, are more fully realised and better appreciated.
Fittingly, a legacy of increased safety now benefits present and future yachtsmen in this and other equally challenging ocean races around the world. It is a legacy paid for by those who perished in that unforgettable storm.
If ever you suffered the heartbreak of having to abandon your yacht, you would only hope that those coming to your rescue were experienced and well-equipped for the task.
For the crew of Graeme Ainley and John Williams’s Farr 53 Georgia, who were forced to abandon their sinking yacht on the first night of this year’s race, that particular silver lining was to appear on the edge of their cloud of misfortune.
With the rudder damaged in a 15-knot collision with an underwater object as they raced down the NSW coast, water poured into the hull faster than it could be contained and the crew was soon waist-deep below decks.
The north Queensland Volvo 60, Telcoinabox Merit was three miles ahead of Georgia when the mayday was received and was asked by the Radio Relay Vessel to return and render assistance. Meantime, the crew of the American yacht Ragtime had sighted Georgia’s flares and remained on standby.
An extraordinarily smooth rescue operation then ensued, with all 14 of Georgia’s crew being transferred by liferaft to Telcoinabox Merit in two runs without incident or injury. Nor was there any time to spare, with the navigation lights of the stricken yacht disappearing beneath the water shortly after the last crew member was transferred.
As Telcoinabox Merit headed for the coast to hand over the Georgia crew to the police boat Nemesis, they watched their ill-fated boat roll over and sink.
Telcoinabox Merit’s rescue role received high praise and much gratitude from Georgia’s skipper and the Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, with memories of the rescues of 1998 still very much to the fore. Remarkably, having received 18 hours of redress for the time lost in the rescue, Telcoinabox Merit raced on to win the PHS Division Overall.
Telcoinabox Merit’s skipper, Leo Rodriguez, who directed the rescue, has sailed many offshore miles, but has done little ocean racing. He grew up racing Hobie catamarans out of Cronulla in Sydney’s south, before moving to Queensland 20 years ago, running a sailing charter business out of Airlie Beach for many years.
When Rodriguez decided to take part in this year’s race, the round-the-world racer Telcoinabox Merit was in a poor state, so he and his colleagues spent many hours restoring her to an offshore racing standard. Subject to gaining enough interest, his plan is to campaign Telcoinabox Merit with paying crew seeking an adventure sailing experience in most of the major east coast offshore races in the coming year.
Asked after the race whether the Safety at Sea Survival Course training requirements for race crew had assisted in such a faultless rescue of Georgia’s crew, Rodriguez agreed that it probably had – he personally had taken a refresher course – but he also revealed that amongst his crew of 16 were seven commercial skippers!
Georgia’s crew was clearly in very safe hands.
– Crosbie Lorimer
Friday, December 26
Wake up at 6:00am to a beautiful summer’s day. Time for a swim so I head off to Queenscliff ocean pool for some early morning laps to get my head around the upcoming day.
After packing gear and farewells to the family, it’s off to the CYCA at Rushcutters Bay for the 8.30am boat call.
The CYCA is buzzing; Sydney Hobart race day is like no other at the club. The place is electric, bursting at the seams with race competitors, friends and family mixed in with the general spectators.
We leave the dock at 11:15am and make our way out to the harbour, setting our storm gear as required by race regulations to the official boat on the western side of the harbour.
The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race is regarded as one of the three classic offshore races in the world, and it truly deserves its place. The harbour in the hour prior to race start is awesome, with crowds lining the foreshore and masses of spectator craft idling around outside the race exclusion zone.
We head up towards the turning mark to check the strength and direction of the wind and to locate our turning marker, hoist the mainsail and then proceed back to our starting area for the 1:00pm gun.
A Sydney Hobart start is like no other event that I have participated in. Spectacular maxi yachts dive through the fleet with winch drums screaming in the 12- to 15-knot northeaster, as sheets are eased looking for gaps and a position to start their run for the line.
The fleet is divided into two start divisions, with separate start lines 500m apart. The bigger boats start at the front, leaving the smaller yachts to duel at the back.
We are on the first startline and choose to start towards the favoured eastern end of the line along with the majority of the boats. But we are held almost head to wind and dead in the water by another competitor as the gun goes off.
We soon power up and get going and, after a few clearing port tacks, we are able to clear our air and quickly make our way to the inner harbour turning mark, where we round just behind the Volvo 70 Ichi Ban, with Limit over-lapped to windward.
We now set course for the outer turning mark near North Head, preparing the A4 spinnaker for hoisting as we clear the harbour and head south for Hobart.
At the mark we manage to shake off Limit and pass Ichi Ban prior to hoisting our spinnaker for the run south. The breeze has increased to a steady 15 knots.
During the afternoon and early evening, the breeze freshens and we enjoy 15 to 25-knot winds backing in direction from 30 to 0 degrees. The boat is now flying south at 15 to 25 knots boat speed.
We have a watch system that involves three teams of five people that are rotated; four hours on and two hours off. Three designated helmsmen work on a two-hour-on, four-hour-off roster. Our navigator is on watch as required.
At 8:00pm, after dinner, we kick off the watch system and go into the first night in the company of Ichi Ban, Limit and Loki, with Black Jack in sight on our bow.
During the night, we see the breeze fluctuate in direction from 0 to 180 and back to 45 degrees, with the wind strength going from 3 to 25 knots, resulting in a number of sail changes and gybes to maintain optimum course.
Saturday, December 27
By 6:00am we are in Bass Strait and cross gybes with Black Jack. The morning sked tells us that we have had a good night against the boats that were with us the previous evening, with Limit, Loki and Ichi Ban now behind us, putting us in third place for line honours. Not so good is the revelation that the chasing 50-footers have not encountered the softer fluctuating conditions and have run some miles out of the bigger boats.
By mid-morning, we are seeing the breeze freshen to 30 knots. Direction changes anywhere from 0 to 345 degrees. We gybe the boat and peel to the heavier and flatter A4 spinnaker and set course for Tasman Light. Boat speed is 25 knots and we are accompanied by a pod of welcoming dolphins.
By mid-afternoon the breeze is backing to the southwest. We drop the spinnaker for a jib top with stay sail and see our speed increase up to 28 knots. By evening we are 40 miles offshore of St Helens.
Once again, night brings fluctuating conditions, with the breeze almost shutting down and backing to 180 degrees as we close the coast aiming for our next turn on the race course, Tasman Light. We have the additional burden of more sail changes to keep the boat charging south.
Sunday, December 28
At sunrise we can see Tasman Light in the distance. Skandia is ahead on our bow and we have Ichi Ban and Limit close behind, with Black Jack and Loki bringing up the rear. It confirms that we have maintained our third place throughout the previous 24 hours.
With just over 100 miles to go, it is all on between ourselves, Limit and Ichi Ban for last place on the podium, and with the breeze gusting to just over 20 knots and going to 345 degrees, we go to our code zero reacher and staysail to hold off the challengers.
The new sail combination has allowed us to maintain our margin and just as we are contemplating what sails we will change to for the trip across Storm Bay, we are hit by a gust accelerating the boat to 23 knots, which is accompanied by an exploding back stay. It forces us to dramatically change course and lower the code zero to save the rig.
Disaster averted and two places lost, we arrive to the awe-inspiring sight of Tasman Light and the rock formations known as the Organ Pipes, with Storm Bay and the Derwent River in front of us. We give chase to Limit and Ichi Ban, making yet another sail change to our medium jib.
As we lay up to the Iron Pot at the entrance to the Derwent, we have managed to pass Limit and make our final turn to the finish chasing Ichi Ban, which is ahead working the opposite side of the river.
As we approach Sandy Bay with only seven miles to go and in sight of the finishing line, we can see a frightening gust of breeze coming our way. All of a sudden we see an increase in breeze from 15 to 45-plus knots – pretty scary in such a large boat as the sails are very large and can be hard to handle in these circumstances.
The crew does a fantastic job to pull off a headsail and change to the number five jib, allowing us to maintain control of the boat and finish the race safely inside of two days. We finish in fourth place, with 10th overall on handicap.
This was my sixth Sydney Hobart and without doubt my most enjoyable. Our owners, Andrew and Kylie Short put together a fantastic group of guys and supplied a beautiful and competitive yacht for all of us to race. The conditions were better than any of the previous races I have tackled; in all a most rewarding experience even after only four hours sleep in 40-odd hours.