The '81 Sydney-Hobart Race
Some of the old timers around the club may remember back to November 1981 when Greg Myer, a friend and sailing companion of mine, started planning to campaign for the ‘81 Hobart race, on the Liquidator, a 30 foot long Farr half –tonner. Farr was, and still is, renowned for designing fast, competitive racing yachts, not dissimilar to formula one racing cars.
If they are overbuilt to the extent that they don’t fall apart as they cross the finish line they are not competitive, yet they must stand up to the most severe strain imaginable whilst out on the race track, or in our case 180 degrees magnetic, the Sydney-Hobart track.
The flip side of the coin is that 30 foot is just that. Five men laid end to end equals 30 foot. Experience was varied among the crew, as was competence at sea, but more of that to come.
When it became general knowledge around the club that the Liquidator was entering the ‘Hobart’ race the comments immediately started flowing among both the doyens of ocean racing in Sydney and Hobart as well as the resident bar flies in both clubs. The scuttlebutt flowed thick and fast around the Cruising Yacht Club in Sydney and in the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania in Hobart. “The boat won’t make it, It shouldn't be allowed to go. They’re nuts to try something like that in such a light weight boat.” and so on and so forth, until at one stage and due entirely to this salacious and largely un-informed comment there was serious doubt as to whether or not our entry would be accepted. In any case, it was generally considered folly to attempt the race in such a lightly constructed vessel.
At that time I had some three years of commercial sea-time under my belt (in those days a piece of three strand polypropylene rope), working for’d of the mast with some of the most seasoned seamen in the world. These were fishermen working off Tasmania’s rugged, windswept south and west coasts. Rough men who asked no quarter and gave none, who knew that every time they cast off, getting back was at the whim of the sea.
Paradoxically, cupped in mother nature’s palm, they found a sense of inner contentment that may seem at odds with rolling around in the mountainous swells generated by the gales of the Roaring Forties in the Southern Ocean. Often these swells would be capped by driving rain squalls, following on behind cold fronts that would appear as if from nowhere. Yet vicious, fifty knot plus gusts of wind with attendant sea states, were the norm, and pity help the Skipper that didn't keep one eye permanently focused on the western sky.
A wander around any of the boats of Tasmanian fishing fleet attests to this, the skipper’s bunk invariably located in the wheel house, facilitating a perennial view of the sky, his berth just feet from the helm and usually perched directly underneath the barometer, or glass, as it is commonly referred to in these circles. “Did you hear the glass fall off the wall last night?” laconically thrown across the galley table at the pre-dawn breakfast in the boat’s galley, being as close as anyone might get from the skipper any indication that we were in for a hiding that day, his reference being to the barometric pressure falling suddenly, and indicative of yet another storm on the way.
Many of these men could not write beyond a competence level found in junior school and most had little interest in the world outside the price of crayfish or the cost of diesel, but their knowledge of survival in adverse conditions was as finely honed as is the most scholarly literary critic’s appreciation of the Bard.
With a back drop of respect for the sea generated by men such as these, I was well aware that the crew of the Liquidator and not the boat itself was the key to a successful trip to Sydney and, more relevantly, the key to getting back again. Survival at sea is also subject to a certain amount of luck, the odds of which usually tend to go unspoken. The possibility of running into a natural disaster such as a whale lurking at the bottom of a steep wave one might be surfing down has always been acknowledged, and while no one wants to end his life this way, the chance of such an abrupt ending is real, albeit negligible. While there are many more near misses than fatalities, the occasional disaster occurs none the less, although not frequently enough to make one hang up one’s sea boots.
In due course, having successfully ducked and weaved through the minefield of innuendo growing constantly thicker at the club, like so many empty beer cans at the Quiet Little Drink, and having managed to get the Liquidator entered in the race and away from the dock in Hobart, we were finally bound for Sydney and glory. The trip north was largely uneventful with the exception of the mandatory gale in Bass Strait. This one was a southerly buster that peaked at somewhere around forty five knots. Whilst it proved to be no great drama, we did add a little to my own already steep learning curve during this blow. Sailing along under the number three and a reefed main sail in an increasing wind and a steepening sea, I opted to take off both of these sails and replace them with storm gear.
One of the sea states that is of major concern to yachtsmen occurs when the wind and seas travel in one direction and the current is heading in the other. This can result in seas that stand almost vertical up to 5 or 6 metres high (and sometimes higher), with the waves having no backs or ‘depth’ to them. The result of this is that when you are travelling with the current, but against the wind and the sea and the boat hits a wave at say seven knots, it literally bursts through the back of the wave, to find that as it comes out the other side there is nothing but thin air.
The result may be likened to picking a boat up with a crane and letting it freefall from a considerable height. The landing is invariably unpleasant. In the 1984 Sydney - Hobart race I drove the 46 foot Parmelia through a wave in this fashion. The boat weighed eight or nine tonnes and when, in due course, it ended up in the black hole behind the wave I cracked a rib as I bounced off the helm. This was in spite of being braced, tethered into place, with two hands on the wheel and fully aware of what was coming.
The situation when one is sailing with the wind and sea but against the current is slightly different yet potentially no less dangerous. Sailing in these conditions means that the waves down which one surfs occasionally break like dumpers on a surf beach. The art to surviving in these conditions is based on one of two options. The first is to ensure one has enough speed to outrun the dumper and the second more conservative choice is to lower the speed of the yacht, allowing one to role the boat off the back of the wave before it dumps.
There is a point at which the tiredness of the crew, which generally kicks in as the adrenaline rush of too much surfing wears off, takes over and it is time to reef the boat down, allowing the second more conservative option for boat survival to have its day. While helming the Liquidator in these conditions and having recently missed, by less than a comfortable margin, a largish whale found languishing in a trough, I arrived at the conclusion that it was time for the storm gear and a little sanity, and requested that the guys shorten sail. At this point in time our skipper was snugly huddled away below decks, speaking on the radio at length to Billy “Wobbler” Read, skipperring Orani, another yacht making its way to Sydney for the race.
Now a rudder relies on water moving past it to give the boat steerage-way and control. In our haste to lower the sails and get the storm gear on both sails were dropped before the storm sails were hoisted, leaving us momentarily without much forward motion and thus at the mercy of the waves. In typical fashion and pretty well perfect timing by ‘Huey’ (the seafarer’s God) there was a dumper with our name on it that turned up at just this time. It was forecast by the for’d hand who, from his vantage point beside the mast, merely pointed over the back of the boat, not wasting his time trying to yell, as at the time words were being flung off by the breeze like so much spume off the tops of the waves.
Looking over my shoulder I decided it was time to wrap an arm around the lifelines I was propped up against, and as they say in the classics, put my head between my legs and kiss my ass goodbye. The wave subsequently buried the yacht up to the mast, and for a good ten seconds or so we were in Bass Strait as opposed to being on it. This immersed condition, an unnatural state for a vessel designed to float and not swim, was maintained until the Liquidator finally popped like a cork back to the surface, and continued on its way, shaking off the experience somewhat akin to a half-drowned puppy.
Just then the top splash board of the cabin, usually completely sealed in these conditions, popped open to expose about 6 inches of Greg’s face. After asking in studied understatement if all was well, he advised that our companions in Orani were enjoying similar conditions to those we were reveling in. He then, nonchalantly slammed shut the little hatch cover to hermetically re-seal the interior of the boat and its off-watch inhabitants away from the outside world and our slightly less than pleasant meanderings through the nasty big waves, there to rejoin ‘Wobbler’ on the radio.
So much for the dubious integrity of the Liquidator. I for one, now no longer had any qualms about whether the boat was up to the race or not. It had just proved itself sound enough that if we were to pull out of the race it would almost undoubtedly be down to crew failure and not the integrity of the boat.
In due course we arrived in Sydney, tying up at the CYC, there to soak up the usual pre-race atmosphere, the standard concoction of aggression, cock-suredness and egos, all competing with each other for time and space, to say nothing of the mad rush to get the 100 little last-minute chores finished in readiness for the big day. We had by this time developed an attitude of ignoring the knockers in Sydney, their whining about the Liquidator’s integrity largely now water off a boat’s back. However, one very brief comment still comes to mind, this passed on by a friend of mine, one of the country’s most renowned blue water yachtsmen of the time, Duncan Van Woeden. He was the sailing master of Apollo, Jack Rooklyn’s maxi. Duncan, who is at the best of times a man of few words, and has never been heard to raise his voice when he could be bothered speaking at all, simply made the point to me in the CYC bar on Christmas eve, that if it kicked in rough, to run for cover.
With all of this build up one might think but what about the race. Well I don’t actually have any great mind shattering recollections of the race. I do remember the main halyard breaking half way across Bass Strait. In this case the halyard was a piece of wire some three sixteenths of an inch in diameter, and I was allocated the job of fixing it, having just finished a three month stint at the Australian Maritime College, learning amongst other things how to wire splice. This entailed untwirling eight or nine individual strands of wire on each end of the broken section and effectively plaiting them together forming a bond capable of withstanding the strains of the rest of the race.
The conditions at the time were less than salubrious and some hours huddled wet, cold and miserable, with fingers that didn’t work, over a few strands of unforgiving and very sharp wire was not my preferred way to spend an off watch.
So, in the end why go back there? The trip was a series of soakings punctuated by the occasional adrenaline rush from driving the boat down a wave at fifteen plus knots with a wall of spray pluming out each side, and apart from the occasional drama we seemed to manage our way through with a little team work and a liberal dosage of common sense.
The trip in 1981 was to be for me the first of 13 Sydney-Hobarts thus far. It was not the best or worst of them and I will certainly do the race again. But there is something about the completeness of life on a yacht. The problems of the world become much more clearly defined. The dangers are real, but they all exist encapsulated in a clearly defined space, in this case 30 feet of it. Living well in such a close-knit society of your peers requires discipline and the pleasure derived from molding together as a team, aspiring to a common purpose leaves a sweet taste in the mouth that lingers for a long time after the discomforts have become vague memories.
I will concede that my ocean racing is now somewhat more discerning. As a fifty something year old I tend to spend my time these days either steering or navigating on larger more comfortable yachts with a suitably experienced contingent of younger blood aboard that vie with each other to play hero on deck. There is a saying about for’d hands along the lines of brave and stupid, but that is I suppose another story. In the meantime, the simplicity of life at sea will continue to hold a beauty and a peace that I suspect I will never find on land.