Did you say doing the Sydney to Hobart Race is on your “bucket list”? Be careful what you ask for.
It’s the morning after my first Sydney- Hobart race. I’m sore, tired, humbled, grateful and slightly hung-over all at the same time. It’s the raw mix of emotion and sense of purpose that only adventure can provide. With several costly mistakes and boat breakages, my crew and I got thoroughly schooled by the fleet and while the competitor in me is upset with our result, the sailor in me feels a deep sense of fulfillment and accomplishment just in finishing the race in racing spirit. In a race where we saw close to 40 knots downwind and 50 knots upwind within a period of 8 hours in the Bass Strait, simply finishing has become a personal triumph and experience that I will cherish forever. Overcoming adversity, this crew of 10 has stepped off the boat as better friends than when we started; no small feat considering the conditions and problems onboard. Here’s how Sydney- Hobart 2013 went down on the Archambault 40 One for the Road.
Beginning in Sydney on Boxing Day, December 26, the start of the race was unlike anything that I have ever experienced in a yacht race. Supermaxi’s like Loyal and Wild Oats sailed around in the pre-start alongside us, helicopters hovered over head, hundreds of spectator boats lined the course and an estimated 300,000+ sailing fans filled the shoreline, trying to catch a glimpse of the annual bluewater classic from any vantage point possible. At one o’clock, the starting gun went bang and nearly a hundred racing yachts each began their own 628 nautical mile passage to Hobart. Reaching out of the harbor on starboard tack with full main and #3 jib, we had our A3 on the ready, but opted to play it safe as boats with kites were struggling to carry. Kites flogged badly in the dirty air left over by the bigger boats and then wiped out repeatedly in the fresh southerly puffs. Neither passing boats nor being passed, we were happy with our clean start and sailed out of the Sydney Heads and into a 20-knot southerly.
Beating upwind, we stayed on starboard for several hours, watching boats tack away to the south one by one. Our navigator Anthony Butler aimed to sail further offshore and into the East Australian Current, which can run at 3-4 knots to the south. Entering the current, tacking to the south and maintaining more pressure overnight than most of our inshore rivals, One for the Road entered the first morning in a good position, both in the standings and on the race course. In light jib reaching and running conditions, we continued south in a variable breeze, veering from the south to east and eventually northeast.
And then the charging system packed it up. With a depleted house bank that needed charging, we turned everything off while myself and bow man/ offwatch navigator Ben Hardy attempted to fix the problem. With no manuals or technical references on board and with a relatively complicated charging system, Ben and I were at a loss. Not wanting to make a bad situation worse, Ben and I were hesitant to experiment with a system that we were both unfamiliar and unknowledgeable about. We would have to sail the race on almost no electricity. (At the dock in Tasmania, a marine electrician confirmed that the alternator needs rebuilding and is not outputting power.)
With 12.2 volts in the house bank and 12.6 in the starting battery, the starter battery was re-wired to become a dedicated SSB power source as we aimed to avoid missing the mandatory radio sched’s which would result in either penalty or disqualification. From that point forward, we ran blacked out on everything, saving every precious amp hour for the instruments and for the SSB. Running our back-up battery powered nav lights at night and relying on a handheld GPS and the forecast given during the radio sched’s, we navigated imprecisely in what would turn out to be a constantly evolving navigator’s duel that left even the likes of Stan Honey’s head hurting afterwards.
Only two things seemed certain in the weather scenario; that we would see a quickly building northeasterly on Saturday and then a quick transition to a W-SW gale in the Bass Strait. With an audible sigh of relief after each successful radio sched, we pushed on and continued the race. Sailing past Green Cape, effectively the southeast corner of the continent and last bail out point before Bass Strait, we consulted with one another and then made the required declaration that everything on-board was functioning and that we were prepared to cross the Strait. No one was hurt, our SSB was working, we could start the engine if necessary, the boat was in a seaworthy state and all of our safety gear was intact; we pushed on.
Downwind into the Bass Strait, we encountered the building northeasterly the next morning. 10 knots turned into 15, then to 20 and continued building. Spending the majority of each of my shifts at the helm, I have been so fortunate to create some of my most cherished of sailing memories to date. Saturday morning before getting off watch at 8 am, we crossed port-starboard within 2 boat lengths of the Hanse 495 Geomatic. With both crews whooping and hollering, we both drove low and slow and made a safe crossing mid- Bass Strait. Absolutely epic.
Sleeping on my off watch, breeze had now built into the upper 20’s and the crew on-deck attempted to douse the kite and peel to the A3 on the bow sprit in a douse that ended badly. Kite partially in the water, sheets in the water and untold lost minutes and miles later, everything was recovered and we were back underway. Not two hours later, we began wiping out with the A3. The breeze had built into the 30’s and with a relatively heavy displacement racer-cruiser and a sloppy, large, confused sea state with swells from multiple directions, the boat was almost un-drivable and we weren’t up to the task of carrying. We had to douse the kite.
Running bare-headed for a few minutes while deciding what to do, we had to put something up, so we hoisted the jib top. Our speed was good, but angles were horrible, so we decided to pole it out. Back on watch and back on the helm, I managed some long, solid surfs of up to 19.6 of boat speed under the poled out jib top. With up to 40 knots of breeze and a quickly building sea state, my adrenaline was fully pumping when a cross swell picked up the stern, ventilated the rudder and immediately forced me into a roundup. One of the trimmers blew the guy, trying to help us back on course. The pole slammed forward, bounced off the headstay and back to the starboard cap shroud, snapping the new carbon pole like it was a thin, brittle stick. Fuck. – Ronnie Simpson.
Part two tomorrow.