With 28 races under his belt, this is the culmination of a quest to claim the top prize at one of the world’s most revered sporting occasions by one of Australia’s stalwarts of the sport of sailing. The coincidence of a new boat and a forecast that encouraged the 50-footers, made Ichi Ban one of the pre-race favourites. That should not in any way diminish the scale of this achievement. Ichi Ban needed to sail a near perfect race to beat their immediate opposition, both on the water and on handicap.
Victory was celebrated at the dockside prize giving, where Allen and his crew received the coveted Rolex timepiece and Tattersall Cup as just reward for the persistence, courage and skill exhibited throughout the race. For Allen, the moment was not without emotion. A winner of the race back in 1983, as crew on Challenge II, this is his first taste of success as an owner and skipper. Allen has come close before, including last year when the Derwent arguably robbed him and his crew.
“Winning this race is a dream for us all,” said a grinning Allen, who detailed their preparations. “We built a fast TP52 hull, strengthening and waterproofing it for offshore racing and the rigorous conditions of the Rolex Sydney Hobart. We took the rig from our old boat, incorporated the latest technology and combined it with the most amazing crew I have ever sailed with.”
Over the years, Allen and his crewmates have become accustomed to the vagaries of the race, its ability to punish weakness and to be selective with luck. “We had to push the boat all the time,” he explained. “You are not going to win this race without pushing and the crew did just the most incredible effort, from the judgment calls by Gordon Maguire and Will Oxley to the guys driving the boat. The crew left nothing on the table, they worked for each other and were inspirational.”
The race was not without issues. Sails were damaged and bodies bruised in the hard, downwind driving conditions of the second day. There was an alarming, fortunately brief, park up on the Derwent. Sailing Master, Gordon Maguire, on his 17th race was quick to recognize the crew’s contribution: “It was not the boat that won us the race and it wasn’t good fortune. We won it through sheer hard work and effort.”
Races can often be won and lost by decisions over when to press and when to pull back. In Ichi Ban’s case, there was little of the latter. There was no room. The usual caution to protect equipment and people was put to one side in a calculated throw of the dice. “It was everything or nothing,” according to Maguire, who has won the race twice before. “There was no point in not pushing 110% on the 27 December, because that was where the race would be decided. A point came where we said ‘stuff it’, forget the sails, just keep going. If it breaks we are out, if we don’t push we are out.”
Navigator, Will Oxley, also emphasised the critical significance of the human component in this race: “We’ve learnt a lot over the years and invested effort in making sure things function in all conditions. That allowed us to get the information we needed to make the correct decisions. But in this race, the most important element was the guys on deck, driving the boat and trimming. Those guys really won us this race.”
Bob Steel, the two-time winner of the Rolex Sydney Hobart, whose boat Quest posed the biggest threat to Ichi Ban, eventually finishing second overall, confirmed the importance of people: “The downhill conditions suited our boat, but it was hard work. You had to concentrate 24/7. It was physically very challenging. The guys on the winches grinding the spinnaker and the main in and out needed rotating every 10, 15 minutes to avoid complete exhaustion.”
The threat to the boat in such conditions can be severe, as Steel agreed: “As every puff comes through, you risk being knocked down and your race being over. You can completely wipe a boat out accidentally gybing at 30 knots.”
John Markos, Commodore of race organizer the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, expressed the club’s delight at Matt Allen’s success: “Wins like this are career pinnacles. They reflect the effort that people put into their sport. Matt’s engagement in sailing and this race is total. As an administrator, he is on the board of the CYCA and is a past Commodore; he is President of Australian Sailing and is on the board of the Australian Olympic Committee. This is his 28th race; it has been a long time coming and we couldn’t be happier.”
Both Oxley and Maguire have raced around the world, and continue to compete at the highest level. They are professional yachtsmen held in high regard by their peers. When they speak, it is with measure and certainty; hardened sailors they may be, but they take pride in their work and this win clearly means a lot.
Maguire commented “Winning this race is a life experience. To do so once is amazing. The second time, it doesn’t diminish. Each race is so individual. The battle to win the trophy becomes its own entity and each medal has its own story, its own memories. This will probably be my most memorable because everyone on the boat wanted it so much. There wasn’t a quitter among us. Everyone backed everyone.”
“This is the first time I’ve won this race on handicap,” advised Oxley, whose experience as a navigator spans close to 40 years. “As an Australian, this is the biggest race you can win. I’ve done five round the world races, but the first question people ask you in Australia, when they know you are a sailor, is whether you’ve done the Rolex Sydney Hobart and how many. In that respect, this is certainly the biggest win of my career.”
Passion and determination go hand in hand in any form of success. Both are required to overcome the hurdles, the disappointments and frustrations. If Allen’s result this year is anything it is a sporting lesson: “It hasn’t really sunk in yet. The Rolex Sydney Hobart – it’s the premier event – everyone follows it and knows the winners of this race. I did my first in 1980 at the age of 17 and I’ve been planning this race since about 2001. It’s been a long-held passion to win it.” And now he has.