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.
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……..
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.
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.
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.
But 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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.