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Sydney Hobart Race: Luck of the Irish Runs Out in the Race to Hobart

28th December 2018
Wild Oats X1 approaching the finish in the heart of Hobart harbour to take line honours in the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race 2018. Thanks to her speed, though the actual wind is from aft of the beam, she seems to be on a close reach Wild Oats X1 approaching the finish in the heart of Hobart harbour to take line honours in the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race 2018. Thanks to her speed, though the actual wind is from aft of the beam, she seems to be on a close reach Photo: Rolex/Borlenghi

Hobart in Tasmania is a characterful port with a certain style to it, picturesquely located in handsome scenery on the estuary of the River Derwent writes W M Nixon. It’s home to a goodly fleet of sailcraft and motorboats of all types and sizes. And with very many square miles of sheltered island-studded sea within easy reach, it’s a dream place to sail if all you want to do is potter around, or take part in a local club race if there happens to be a reasonable breeze present.

But if you want to use the port of Hobart as the finish point for a major offshore race with finishing times spread over a day and more, then for some competitors the final miles can become exquisite torture. Yet since 1945 the annual Sydney Hobart Race has started in the outer reaches of Sydney Harbour – sometimes a flukey enough bit of sailing water in itself – and then the fleet has been expected to sail every inch of the 628 miles, more or less right into the heart of downtown Hobart.

comanche at speed2With a decent breeze, Comanche led on the water

Now in summertime, this can be okay if your boats is of the size group which is approaching the final miles as the day develops, and the warming sun strengthens the sea breeze blowing up the harbour to bring finishers in at a respectable speed.

But if the peak of the day’s heat has passed, then it’s often downhill all the way as far as favourable winds are concerned. There may be zephyrs off the land from dead ahead, or there may be no wind at all. In this final approaches to Hobart, there’s an historic navigational marker known as The Iron Pot where many a boat has come to a halt, and some Sydney-Hobart regulars will be found - after they die - to have Iron Pot inscribed across their hearts……..

iron pot 3Calm at the Iron Pot Lighthouse in the approaches to Hobart

All of which is a roundabout way of accustoming ourselves to the feeling - the reality indeed – that the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race 2018 looked for 80% of its distance like being a good old-fashioned clean sweep for Irish ex-Pats, but in the end it wasn’t.

Just a week ago right here, we featured Jim Cooney (of Ballivor) and Samantha Grant’s extraordinary 100ft supermaxi Comanche making enormous knots, and looking everything like being the line honours winner if the forecast north to northeast breeze held up.

cooney maguire4Jim Cooney (left) and Gordon Maguire – for 80% of the current Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race, the former held the lead on the water while the latter had a substantial IRC Overall lead

Well, for a while it did. And in a favourable puff of only 20 knots or so, Comanche was having mighty speed bursts of 30 knots as she stayed in front ahead of fellow giants Black Jack, Wild Oats XI and InfoTrack.

The Supmaxi tally was down to four, as the Hong Kong entry Scallywag had retired with a broken bowsprit. These machines sail so fast that the wind almost always seems forward of the beam, and the bowsprit is essential for the winning sail configuration, which in Comanche’s case sometimes saw a total of four sails in use at once.

How they got those sails to work together is one of the sacred mysteries, but it kept her in the lead despite the occasional soft patch until they were approaching Tasmania, where the wind lost its sense of purpose, and showed tendencies to come from the south or even the southwest.

Sydney hobart race route5Once you get out of Sydney Harbour, the race to Hobart is fairly straightforward until you get into the final fifty miles on the Tasmanian coast

In such conditions, the hyer-skinny Wild Oats XI skippered by the wily Mark Richards is as slippery as an eel. She took over the lead after the entire quartet of super-maxis had spent the race within five miles and usually less of each other, and then lengthened away to come into Hobart in relatively solitary glory, as she was all of 28 minutes clear ahead of Peter Harburg’s Black Jack, which was in a much closer finish just one minute and three seconds ahead of Comanche, which in turn had twelve and a half minutes on InfoTrack.

Even though it was happening in benign summer weather in relatively slow motion, a finish as close as this among four Supermaxis is headline stuff, and the pressure is being kept up by the news that the Race Committee itself is protesting Wild Oats XI on the grounds that the Oatley family’s big boat did not activate the onboard AIS, a requirement of the race which put a dampener on things until on Saturday the Jury decided that the protest – originally made by Black Jack – was invalid.

But meanwhile no sooner had the simple wonder of the Supermaxi finish been filed than attention could then turn to the overall IRC win. There, Matt Allen’s Botin 52 Ichi Ban - with Howth’s own favourite ex-Pat Gordon Maguire very much on the strength - was for most of the race looking good to take the prized Tattersalls Cup for the second year running. In fact, looking very good indeed – at times Ichi Ban was putting it all together so perfectly on the long and difficult run down from Sydney that she was showing all of three hours clear ahead of the next boat, and was consistently sailing in company with bigger boats around the 60ft mark.

ichi ban silhouette6Summer sailing at its best – and in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race too. Ichi Ban at the perfect moment, when she also was leading IRC overall by a substantial margin. Photo: Rolex/Borlenghi

ichi ban crew7Quiet concentration to keep Ichi Ban at optimum performance – Gordon Maguire is not on the helm, but is at the stern like a conductor guiding a very special music group. Photo Rolex/BorlenghiBut once again those pesky approaches to Hobart were the undoing of Irish hopes. In fact, so contrary are those final miles that some Australia commentators have suggested that, to be a real race, it should all finish at a point about 40 miles from Hobart itself. Be that as it may, the nearer Ichi Ban got to Hobart, the more it became clear that the time of day and the underlying wind pattern were increasingly stacked against her.

But that was of little interest to the good people of Hobart, for they were looking at a developing scenario where it looked as if the race finish for 2018 was being shaped with the benefit of 66 footers in mind, and at the head of those 66 footers was the Reichel Pugh designed Alive, owned by Phillip Turner of the Derwent Sailing Squadron of Tasmania.

alive racing8Local boy makes good. Tasmania’s own Phillip Turner with the Reichel Pugh 66 Alive is the new winner of the Tattersallls Cup for the Overall IRC win in the Hobart Race. Photo: Rolex/BorlenghiIn other words, it was shaping up to be a classic case of Local Boy Makes Good. In such circumstances, you could expect little interest or sympathy for Ichi Ban’s rapidly-declining fortunes. In fact, all the drama was in Alive maintaining her lead over another RP 66, the Oatley family’s Wild Oats X. But Alive did it so well that she was fifth on line honours. Only the four Supermaxis bested her on the water. Yet as is the way with this race, although Hobart will celebrate Alive’s home win for some time, the fact that Wild Oats X was next in, and raced by an all-woman crew skippered by Stacey Jackson who was doing her 12th Sydney-Hobart, will make a more lasting impression internationally.

And as the clock ticked away and the night wind trickled away with it, Ichi Ban fell down the rankings while the Tasmanian boat was confirmed in first on IRC Overall, and Wild Oats X was confirmed in second, with the RP 63 Voodoo (Hugh Ellis) third, the Carkeek 60 Winning Appliances (John Winning) fourth and Ichi Ban trickling across the finish line at less than one knot to take fifth on CT. That was far and away the best of the 50 footers, but it’s small consolation for a crew who’d had the world at their feet when the breeze allowed them to sail.

So the story is that the people’s favourite Wild Oats XI has taken line honours as Nature intended, but there’s a protest against her which give it all a certain sense of déjà vu. As for the winner of the Tattersall’s Cup for overall success, that’s local boy made good Phillip Turner with Alive, and the joint is jumping at the Derwent Sailing Squadron. But before we get carried away by that, let’s hear it for the woman of Wild Oats X sailing under the Ocean Respect Racing banner towards a fine second place overall.

wild oats x9With an all-woman crew, the RP 66 Wild Oats X was second overall on IRC. Photo Rolex/Borlenghi

The skipper was Stacey Jackson, while the navigator was Elizabeth Greenhalgh, and the rest of the lineup includes some names you’ll recognize, as they’re Bianca Cook, Carolijn Brouwer, Dee Caffari, Faraday Rosenberg, Jade Cole, Katie Pellew, Katie Pettibone, Keryn McMaster, Sarah Crawford, Sophie Ciszek and Vanessa Dudley, the veteran of the crew – she was doing her 23rd race to Hobart.

Just next door in third place was Voodoo navigated by Irish-born Adrienne Cahalane doing her 27th Hobart Race, so gender equality afloat is very much part of the Sydney-Hobart ethos and experience.

But so too - inevitably – is disappointment and frustration. The way that the chips fell, it was not a good race at for boats around 45ft, but that’s exactly where Brian O’Sullivan of Tralee found himself aboard the Sydney 47CR Wots Next, which is not only plumb in the middle of this year’s unfavoured size range, but is comfortably equipped as a cruiser-racer, so Wots Next is down the line in a group around 50th place.

However, at least the likelihood of the former Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race winner getting to Hobart is very high, whereas two high-powered challenges from Europe won’t even have that as consolation. Hungary’s sailing reputation may be rising by leaps and bounds, yet it tripped up soon after the start of the Hobart Race 2018 when their chartered TP 52 M3 Team Hungary was dismasted.

team hungary10Everything to hope for, but she fell at the first fence. Hungary’s TP 52 was dismasted soon after this photo was taken. Rolex/Borlgenghi

But at least they’d got across the starting line, something which was denied to 29 keen sailors out from Poland to do the race on the veteran Volvo 70 Monster Project. They’ve campaigned before with this big chartered machine, when she becomes known as Kosatka Monster Project. But unfortunately in Sydney the authorities weren’t satisfied with the insurance arrangements in place to allow the big boat to race. In fact, so dissatisfied were they that they welded the boat to the dock (no, I don’t know either, what with one being plastic while the other is wood), and now it’s being contested in the Federal Court.

kosatka crew11Bursting with hope. The Polish crew of Kosatka in Sydney before they were told their boat did not comply with the regulations to race to Hobart
All of which is a timely reminder that while many Irish and European sailor would like to be part of the extraordinary scenes in Hobart when the great race from Sydney is drawing to its festive conclusion, in order to qualify properly you need an awful lot of things to be just right before you get there.

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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