SYDNEY-HOBART RACE: Chundering to Tasmania

Hobart Race deck scene

Editor’s Note: Tis the season. The dreaded materialistic frenzy that is Christmas is nearly upon us, to be immediately followed (thank God) by the big race to Hobart. The early forecast this year is for a downwind sleigh ride, and Bob Oatley’s super-maxi Wild Oats XI may have a good chance at breaking her course record, set just last year, of 1 day, 18 hours, and change. Course records aren’t that easy to come by in this race, and two in successive years would be a notable achievement. So I’ll be watching developments with interest. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share this account of my one-and-only Sydney-Hobart experience, circa year 2000.

MY RIDE, appropriately enough, was named Antipodes. She wasn’t a racing boat, but a dedicated cruiser, a Taswell 56, built in 1991 to a design by Bill Dixon. I had first met her in the Canary Islands in 1992 while bumming around the North Atlantic as pick-up crew.

During my tenure aboard, her owner, Geoff Hill, generous to a fault, shared with me his unique Australian essence, taught me the words to several songs whose lyrics cannot be repeated in polite company, and promised he would one day lure me to the Land of Oz. Her skipper, Glenn Belcher, an unreconstructed rebel from South Carolina, took good care of me and learned me a thing or two about sailing as we voyaged across the Atlantic from the Canaries to the Bahamas.

When Geoff finally decided to keep his promise eight years later, he cut right to the chase. Just a one-line e-mail flickering at me like pornography from across the Internet: Could you would you should you dare do the 2000 Hobart race with me and Cap’n Ahab Belcher and a motley crew of Aussies on good ship Antipodes?

Such invitations demand draconian responses. You lie to the boss, burn the Christmas gift list, hock a family heirloom. Whatever it takes to get to Sydney by Boxing Day.

I crawled off the plane like Lizard Boy, with a sleeping-pill hangover and Qantas eye-shades plastered across my forehead. My tongue darted in and out of my mouth tasting the strange airs of a world turned upside down. This is amazing, I thought. The toilets flush backwards, cars drive on the wrong side of the road, south is cold, and ocean sailing is a big sport commanding national media attention. It was like I’d died and gone to heaven.

The first time I sailed on Antipodes there’d been five crew total, and only one (Geoff) was an Aussie. This time there would be 12, nine of them Aussies I’d never met before. They all referred to Glenn and me as the “Seppos.” The devious etymology of this word running as follows: “Septic tank” rhymes with “septic Yank,” so Yanks are “Septics” for short, or, even better, just-plain “Seppos.”

Glenn drawled back at them: “Y’all go and laugh. But why is it when you Aussies want to get something important done, you always need American supervision?” Our Aussies howled in pain, scowled a lot, and from that point forward we were a happy and united crew.

To understand the importance of the Hobart race in the Australian national psyche, consider first that sailing is indeed quite popular down there. Stir in the fact that the race is part-and-parcel of the annual Christmas holiday hysteria, and finally that anyone with a boat and the will to get across Bass Strait can participate if they really want to. Bake evenly for over half a century, and what you get is a sporting extravaganza the closest equivalent of which in American terms would be something like a cross between the Rose Bowl game, a Fourth of July picnic, and an ESPN Extreme Games Olympiad.

Sydney-Hobart deck sign

The spirit of the thing

The hype that year was even more intense than usual. First because of the release of a controversial coroner’s report (see below) that seriously criticized the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia‘s management of the tragic 1998 race in which six sailors died in a tremendous storm. Second, the weather forecast was looking a bit dark. The weather briefings were all attended by a phalanx of camera-wielding “journos” (as Aussies call them), and from some of the newspaper headlines I read you’d think we were being sent off to die at Gallipoli.

My Aussie shipmates pooh-poohed the forecasts and assured me that the government prognosticators, who suffered much abuse after the ’98 race, were simply covering their butts by laying on the doom-and-gloom nice and thick. What the crew seemed more concerned about was how the original down-to-earth-let’s-sail-to-Hobart-with-our-mates-on-the-day-after-Christmas spirit of the race was being corrupted by a surfeit of fancy professionals sailing fancy grand-prix race boats.

Exhibit number one that year was an enormous brand-new water-ballasted 83-foot maxi called Shockwave with a rock-star crew featuring Dean Barker and elements of Team New Zealand, of America’s Cup fame. Other suspects included Grant Wharington’s newly-lengthened Wild Thing, the perennial Aussie favorite Brindabella, and the Swedish Nicorette, not to mention a whole sub-fleet of fancy Volvo 60s that were tuning up for the next Volvo Race.

Shockwave crew

Elements of Team New Zealand aboard Shockwave

Antipodes crew

Elements of Team Antipodes

“We’re the only cruising boat in the whole bloody fleet,” noted one of my shipmates as he flipped through a list of entrants. And though this was an exaggeration, it was true we were members of a small minority.

But the start of the race was spectacular. Imagine this: the enormous, gorgeous amphitheater that is Sydney Harbor with the 600,000 eyes of 300,000 spectators all turned upon it–from onshore; from helipcopters swizzle-sticking the sky overhead; from hundreds of boats swarming like locusts on the sidelines. And in the midst of it all the 82 gladiators, from super-sized maxis right down to modest 30-footers, our sails all flashing like scimitars in the afternoon sun as we pirouetted through pre-start maneuvers.

Race start on Antipodes

Race start as seen from the deck of Antipodes

Aerial race start

Race start as seen from a helicopter. We’re in there somewhere!

Finally the gun sounded, we charged down harbor on a port-tack reach, and were then neatly excreted into the South Pacific from between the imposing bluffs of Sydney Heads. The fleet turned right, spinnakers erupting everywhere like huge multi-colored zits, and suddenly we were focused on one simple goal: get the boat to Hobart.

This was Antipodes‘ third attempt at the 630-mile passage to the southern Tasmania. Her first run, during the ’96 race, had been successful, but in ’98, during that horrible storm, she like many others was forced to retire to Eden. Several of our present crew had suffered through this, so there now was a strong feeling onboard, an unspoken resolve, that the boat had a score to settle. I wondered about our ’98 veterans and what sort of suicidal tendencies it took to want to do this again.

“Oh, no worries there,” explained my watch-mate, Doug McEwan, “I reckon I’ll never see another dose like that in my lifetime.”

But in an eerie bit of deja-vu, just like in ’98, the first few hours of this race did consist of a splendid downwind romp before moderate northeasterlies. Then in the early evening came an angry-looking roll-cloud with lots of cold Antarctic air behind it ramping north up the New South Wales coast against the warm southbound East Australia current.

Sometimes the wind is right under the cloud, so we didn’t fool around. We doused our spinnaker and kept it down until hours later the buster started filling in just below Jervis Bay. Light at first, but growing steadily stronger until less than 12 hours after that–in the early afternoon of Wednesday, December 27–we found ourselves down to a triple-reefed main and staysail punching closehauled into steep seas and a 30-knot-plus southwest breeze.

For the next two days, from 1400 hours Wednesday to 1400 hours Friday, Antipodes battled southwesterly headwinds blowing at speeds between 30 and 50 knots. Friday afternoon and evening there was a lull, during which the wind dropped to just 20 knots. Then from Saturday morning all through Saturday night the wind blew a steady 35 knots straight at us out of the south.

During all this, my shipmates and I achieved levels of intimacy normally experienced only by concentration camp inmates and female mud wrestlers. Down below it was a soggy mixmaster of unkempt male flesh trying to sleep. Outside my stints at the wheel consisted of repeated fire-hosings from cold, angry waves. When the wind blew over 40, the spray flying down the deck felt like blasts of gravel fired from a cannon. If you were a helmsman, you had to face forward into this and try to see. I literally squealed like a whipped puppy each time I caught a load full in the face.

Spray on deck

Spray flying during the worst of it

To avoid the worst seas, we plotted a course well east of the shoals that clog the mouth of Bass Strait. Still the motion was horrendous, and many of us were soon puking over the rail. Aussies call this chundering and know exactly how to deal with it. Each morning they fired up our AC generator, plugged in a toaster, and started making toast. An enormous wall of toast, served regularly, all of it smeared with a disgusting black paste called Vegemite, was all that stood between us and the depths of digestive depravity.

In between toast feasts, we maintained radio skeds and gleaned news of the fleet. The Volvo 60 Nokia (the previous year’s record-breaking line-honors winner) had gone missing; Shockwave, Brindabella, and many others had retired; four men (off four different boats) and one keel (off the 62-foot Bumblebee 5) had gone overboard. Then the men were recovered, though the keel was not, and Nokia reappeared. Finally there came word of a finish: Nicorette was first over the line; Ausmaid (long a local favorite) was the overall winner.

Meanwhile, we were still hacking our way across Bass Strait. When finally the gale blew out, we found ourselves becalmed off the east coast of Tasmania near Maria Island. Our intimacy became at once less moist and more civilized, but still we were a long ways from the finish.

Geoff Hill on deck

Geoff enjoys a little après-gale sunbathing

All day Sunday, December 31, more than five days after the start (this in a race where winning times were usually three days or less), we beat down the coast in a whisper of air. Surrounding us were a handful of much smaller boats, likewise tiptoeing south on the smooth oily swell. That morning we suffered the indignity of seeing the triumphant Nicorette shoot past us under spinnaker northbound on her way back to Sydney full of beer and trophies. Then that afternoon we heard ourselves referred to on the radio as “the stragglers.”

Norman, our psycho-killer bowman, went ballistic: “Stragglers is it? Stragglers they’re calling us! We beat flipping Shockwave, didn’t we? We beat flipping Team New Zealand! Team DNF is more like it… and they’re calling us stragglers???”

Psycho Norman

Our stormin’ Norman, looking glamorous

Indeed, we were. Straggling like sons of bitches. By sunset Sunday the wind had gone northerly, but was still weak, and we were still crawling at a snail’s pace toward our destination. At exactly 0000 hours Monday morning, as the New Year and new millenium arrived, we arrived at the southern tip of Tasman Island and at last were able to report our proximity to the finish line to the race committee.

We turned northwest, but then the wind shut down altogether, and for more than six hours we lay perfectly motionless. At daybreak we found ourselves adrift inside Storm Bay several miles east of the Derwent River mouth. Behind us stood the sheer cliff coast of Tasman Island, studded with enormous freestanding columns of rock. To our right a thin waterfall splashed down from the heights into the bay. To our left, barely discernible in the haze, loomed distant snow-capped mountains.

Serving burnt toast

Serving up our best meal yet

Spinnaker run up the Derwent

Up the river to Hobart at last

Per usual, we fired up the generator and had toast and Veggie for breakfast. We sat then and watched the scenery for several more hours as we continued drifting helplessly in the bay. Then came lunch, and Geoff announced he would make toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. Everyone cheered. The stove was fired up, and the smell of burning cheese soon emerged from the companionway.

More toast was handed up, and finally the wind filled in behind us. With a great shout we launched a spinnaker and at long last started sailing up the river toward Hobart.


The Aftermath of ’98

An awful reminder of what had happened in 1998, when an explosive low-pressure cell formed right over the fleet as it entered Bass Strait, arrived in the form of a 330-page coroner’s report that was released to the public just two weeks prior our race start.

Prepared by New South Wales Coroner John Abernethy, the report was scathing in its criticism of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) and most particularly its Race Director, Phil Thompson. Abernethy found that one of the yachts that rolled during the ’98 storm, Business Post Naiad, on which two crew members died, did not meet the race’s minimum stability standards and should not have been allowed to compete. He further found that Thompson and the race management team did not understand the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) weather forecasts, and, most damning of all, were not available to receive and pass on to the race fleet the BOM’s last emergency update, wherein it issued a top-priority storm warning just after the race start. Indeed, the race office did not learn of the warning until the next day, after the storm had already hit the fleet.

In sum, Abernethy wrote, the race team was “practically useless” in the moment of crisis. Thompson, he concluded, through out his tenure as Race Director, had presided over a marked deterioration in the CYCA’s handling of the event.

The CYCA responded instantly and fired Thompson, who nevertheless received a standing ovation at our final skipper’s briefing. It also unilaterally adopted Abernethy’s recommendation that non-SOLAS-approved liferafts and Mae-West-type life-jackets be banned from the race; this despite the fact that the new liferaft rule, adopted just days before the start, threatened to disqualify almost a quarter of the fleet.

Indeed, the CYCA that year was ruthless in its enforcement of safety rules. Nicorette, the eventual line-honors winner, was compelled to cut an extra hatch in her foredeck on very short notice; the maxi Wild Thing had to replace her fiberglass stanchions with steel ones two days before the start. Meanwhile, two other boats, Terra Firma and Kickatinalong, were ejected from the race for failing to meet the stricter crew qualification requirements. In the end, however, after a mad scramble, everyone managed to find approved liferafts to carry and the ejected boats were re-entered after reorganizing their paperwork.

There were several other changes that had been adopted the previous year on the CYCA’s own initiative. All crew members were now required to wear personal EPIRBs, strobe lights, and dye packs. Every boat was required to carry an INMARSAT transponder (though we heard later over the radio only 9 of the 82 units actually functioned during the race). A certain percentage of every boat’s crew was required to attend all weather and skipper’s briefings. Briefings included explicit instructions on how to interpret forecasts and how to summon and interact with search-and-rescue personnel. Immediately prior to the start, each boat had to parade before the race committee with storm sails set. During the race, every boat was required to immediately report sustained wind speeds over 40 knots. Finally, at all times, there was a rescue helicopter shadowing the fleet as we made our way to Hobart.

As it turned out, the most significant new rule demanded that each yacht radio the race committee on passing south of Green Cape into Bass Strait to certify that boat and crew were fit to cross to Tasmania. Reportedly, several of the 24 boats that retired from the race that year had to do so because malfunctioning radios prevented them from meeting this requirement.

BONUS VIDEO: Screw safety, this is what it was like in the good old days. The gale starts at about 9:30…

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3 Responses
  1. Hey Charlie, been a few years since that lobster cookout in Portsmouth…Antipodes launched us on our professional yachting career and we remember her and Geoff with great fondness.
    Rich and Sam XX

  2. Charlie

    @Rich and Sam: Stop by for more lobster anytime! Geoff has another boat named Antipodes now, but much racier. And he’s sailing on Ragamuffin out of Sydney today! You can follow them on the race-tracker. chasrlie

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