Back in 1991 when the world seemed a much simpler place, a three-crew Irish team - using shrewdly-selected offshore racing boats chartered in Australia - took part in the then-popular International Southern Cross Series, which was built around a programme of inshore and offshore races of varying length culminating in the 630-mile Sydney-Hobart Race itself.
Australian ex-Pat John Storey (he was born in Meath) was at the heart of it with his own Farr 43 Atara, where his skipper and the Team Captain was Harold Cudmore. In fact, Cork provided much of the muscle, as the late Joe English skippered the “small boat”, the David 36 Extension – a former Sydney-Hobart overall winner - while the mid-sized team member was known as “the Howth boat”, as her crew was built around Kieran Jameson and Gordon Maguire.
The boat herself was the Davidson 40 Beyond Thunderdome, a name expressive of way-out Australian culture at the time – think Mad Max when Mel Gibson was in his popular prime – and the very fact of having an Irish team in the Southern Cross challenge on the other side of the world also caught the mood of the moment, for back home the economy was starting to get a move on after the glacially sluggish 1980s.
And the Irish Southern Cross team certainly got a move on. They were leading, with Gordon Maguire in particular at the helm of Beyond Thunderdome on top form. But then in a windward slugging match in the final pre-Hobart Race inshore event, an Australian boat on port collided with them, dismasting Thunderdome so totally that her series was over.
Yet victory was pulled from the wreckage. Gordon Maguire was immediately transferred to Atara to be top helm under Harry Cudmore’s command for the race to Hobart. As for Beyond Thunderdome, eventually she got complete points redress for the crash and for missing the race to Hobart. And meanwhile, Atara won the Sydney-Hobart race overall to make sure that Ireland won the 1991 Southern Cross Series.
It was all a life-changing experience for Gordon Maguire. The young Howth sailor – already a multiple champion at home – was soon swept up into the vibrant Australian sailing scene, such that while he has achieved success all over the world – including several Whitbread/Volvo Race victories – Australia is now his home, and he is best known for further top performances in many majors including more Hobart success with his overall wins currently totalling three.
But he has maintained his strong family links with Howth where his father Neville – a champion sailor now in his sprightly nineties – continues to be an active member. Thus twenty-one months ago in February 2018 with two Howth-crewed boats racing in the RORC Caribbean 600 from Antigua when Gordon Maguire turned up with his top lieutenants to race an American Maxi 72, there was something of a club reunion.
Much came out of that Caribbean 600 campaign after the Howth YC squad had secured a first in one class (for “Sailor of the Year” Conor Fogerty with his Sunfast 3600 Bam) and second in another (with the Lombard 46 Pata Negra chartered by Michael Wright for a programme managed by Kieran Jameson).
But what didn’t emerge was a 2019 campaign to return to Antigua, for the Wright team had set their sights on the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race starting on December 26th 2019, and Kieran Jameson was set the task of securing a suitable boat in Australia.
It says everything about Kieran Jameson’s enduring enthusiasm for offshore racing that, 28 years after organising the Beyond Thunderdome campaign, his zest for it all is undiminished despite the fact that the charter market in the countdown to the 2019 Hobart race has been much more challenging.
Researching for a suitable boat was well under way by September 2018, but after years of the annual classic seeing entry levels hovering around the hundred mark and sometimes not even rising to that figure, 2019 is the 75th Anniversary. Entries have shot up to the 160 mark. And the greatest increase is in the 35 to 45ft size - precisely the range Jameson was targeting.
There were sleepless nights in trying to close a deal on a First 40, the Howth team’s ideal target. For although the marque has been in Australia for ten years now after making a mighty debut by taking first and second overall in the 2009 race, like their predecessor the First 40.7 they’ve proven to be continually competitive, and in size terms they’re a very manageable proposition for a team coming from the other side of the world, and the Howth team have been campaigning chartered First 40s in major race – with silverware to show for it - since 2014.
Fortunately through EastSail, the Australian charter mega-agency, they linked up with the First 40 Breakthrough, originally called Chancellor, which acquired her current name when she came under the ownership of medical research professors Matthew Vadas and Jonathan Stone, who had recently made a significant shared discovery in their field of research.
In the 2014 Rolex Sydney-Hobart, she was raced under the command of Matthew Vadas, but a strong Irish link was established as the sailing master was noted Malta-based offshore racing talent Barry Hurley (originally of Cobh) sailing his fourth Hobart challenge. He, in turn, had recruited Dun Laoghaire’s Kenneth Rumball (on his third RSHR) and his brother Alexander together with Catherine Halpin, and for a while, they were right in contention for the overall prize.
But the eventual winner, the Farr 43 Wild Rose (Roger Hickman), somehow got away from them down at Bass Strait, and while Breakthrough finished with a praiseworthy 12th overall, Hurley – who in November 2014 had taken a first in class in the Middle Sea Race – felt it was something of a missed opportunity.
These days, the two professors no longer contemplate doing the decidedly rugged race to Hobart personally. But they like the boat so much they’ve kept her on for personal cruising and less demanding races in the Sydney area, and it seems they were ready to be persuaded that a crew from Howth would be acceptable to take Breakthrough – re-named HYC Breakthrough for the duration - on a bareboat basis for the 75th Anniversary RSHR 2019.
But getting the boat in place is only the beginning of it. In today’s fast-moving world, people who felt sure they’d be available on the date to go to Australia find personal circumstances suddenly changing, and Kieran Jameson has found himself sorting and re-sorting a personnel roster which has only been completely finalized this week.
Heading the list is Darren Wright, current Irish Half Ton Champion with Mata, while Kieran Jameson fulfills the role – as required by the RSHR – of Sailing Master. Colm Bermingham and Rick de Neve (a co-owner of Mata) are listed as navigators, while Simon Knowles - in addition to other roles – is on the strength as tactician. The rest of the crew are Johnny White, Luke Malcolm, Emmet Sheridan and David Wright, and while they’re all proven sailors in Irish waters, although the boat has already been passed as fit for the big race by the regulators, the crew will have to put in 24 hours together sailing hard at sea on HYC Breakthrough as soon as they’ve all assembled in Sydney.
Because of the significant increase in fleet numbers over the usual RSHR turnout, demands on waterfront facilities and services are at a premium, but a high priority has been put on getting the sail wardrobe sorted, using the services of UK Sailmakers and Ian Short sails in Sydney.
And the fleet increase does mean that there will be much improved boat-for-boat racing featuring in the Hobart campaign, so Breakthrough will find herself being kept up to speed by the presence of five First 40s and seven comparably-rated Sydney 38s. Regardless of the overall picture, they’ll have the extra interest of a race-within-a-race.
Nevertheless, the feeling of very extended lines of communication is sensed as you realize that the entire crew is making the journey from Ireland. But a marker has already been put down by 28-year-old Luke Malcolm – a product of the HYC & ICRA Under 25 scheme who is now a full-time sailor – going out ahead two weeks early to start sorting the boat, and last week he sensibly sent back a basic but very real photo of Breakthrough just to reassure everyone that their boat for the big race was ready and waiting exclusively for them.
In Sydney, he soon linked up with Shane Diviney with whom he used to campaign a Fireball on the European circuit, who likewise has gone professional, and for the RSHR is aboard the Australian Judel Vrolik 62 Chinese Whisper (David Griffith) which has further Irish interest as the navigator is Offaly-born Adrienne Cahalan doing her 28th race to Hobart.
There’s continuing Irish interest through the super-maxi Comanche whose owner Jim Cooney proudly proclaims his Meath connections (Ballivor to be precise) while from an international point of view Comanche’s credentials are further reinforced by having “The Navigator’s Navigator”, Stan Honey of California, on board to call the shots.
As for Gordon Maguire, he is of course well immersed in finalizing RSHR preparations with Matt Allen’s turbo-powered TP 52 Ichi Ban. But on a visit back to Howth in the Autumn, he’d a brainstorming session with the HYC Breakthrough team, and while his every word of advice was pure gold, the most cheering thing they were told was that the hard men of Ichi Ban wouldn’t dream of keeping themselves at peak performance with anything as crude as freeze-dried food. Thus when HYC Breakthrough get their shore management set up, Gordon will see that they’re guided with the proper introductions to the secret source of Ichi Ban’s magic victuals.
This vital shore management side will be looked after by Ian and Judith Malcolm, the parents of Luke, who are taking time out from the countdown to the Fireball Worlds 2020 in Howth to ensure that the HYC Breakthrough squad are protected as far as possible from the inevitable hassle which a long-distance management operation like this inevitably involves.
Because as with any great endeavour, no matter how careful and detailed you are in your planning, events will inevitably conspire to knock things astray. In all those years in which the organising Cruising Yacht Club of Australia realized they were in the countdown to the 75th Rolex Sydney Hobart race, and in all the many months – running into well over a year – through which the increasingly determined HYC Breakthrough team were pulling all their threads together, who on earth would have thought that as the start time approached for the Races of Races, the city of Sydney - with its unrivalled natural harbour the perfect arena for the start of a classic sailing event – would find itself under increasing threat from raging bush fires?
Everyone is continuing with their plans, and when they staged a very special regatta last weekend for classics which had taken part in the Sydney-Hobart race before 1976, the wind obligingly was nor’easterly and the harbour was looking more like itself.
It was a wonderful occasion, for with every passing year Australia is becoming more of a world leader in the preservation of great classic boats. And when we realize that the attendance at last weekend’s event included such legends as Jim Hardy (87) and the immortal Gordon Ingate, full of beans at 93 and invigorated by being back on board the superbly-restored Caprice of Huon which he raced with such style during the 1960s, it gives us yet another excuse to use that classic Cowes Week photo from 1965.
It shows Caprice slicing through the crowded water accompanied by a launch filled with admiring RYS alickadoos, beating towards the finish line and an overall win in the Britannia Cup at a time when the boat was already 17 years old - and she’d been built in 1948 to a Robert Clark design which was basically pre-World War II in its origins.
But then on Tuesday as the final countdown continued with the day allocated to the Grinders Coffee SOLAS Big Boat Challenge – traditionally a superb in-harbour spectacle involving legendary maxis – the wind has swung to the northwest, the smoke rolled over and the air became almost unbreathable while visibility was at times down to 0.1 nautical miles, so though an attempt was made at racing, it had to be abandoned.
It may seem utterly trivial to be concerned about smoke-impaired visibility for the start of the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race on December 26th when so many people’s very existence and way of life and property is under the bush fire threat. But as the recent typhoon-plagued Rugby World Cup in Japan reminded us, life is going to go on regardless unless circumstances conspire the wipe out the entire human race, in which case no-one will be bothered either way.
So for those who find contemplation of the classic dash to Hobart a refreshing change from the suffocation of the Festive Season, the word is that the defending champion for the overall win is a Tasmanian boat, Philip Turner’s canting keel Reichel Pugh 65 Alive, while the line honours win is being defended – not for the first time – by the Oatley family’s frequently-altered Super Maxi Wild Oats XI skippered by Mark Richards.