lessons of history

Sydney to Hobart Final Observations

For those with any sense of Sydney-Hobart history the unintended symbolism was potent. As the Rolex-funded race media team summoned a compliant gaggle of press and electronic journalists to cover the overall winner trophy presentation at the King’s Wharf marina in Hobart this morning the 1954 handicap winner, Solveig, lay quietly alongside Woolwich Dock in Sydney. The sturdy little masthead sloop occupied a tiny part of the space normally taken there by Infotrack and Wild Oats XI.

Solveig was designed and built by Trygve and Magnus Halvorsen, who skippered their 36-footer in five Sydney-Hobart races. Back then she wasn’t considered small, and her elapsed time in 1954 was only 90 minutes slower than the line honours winner, Kurrewa IV.

A forgotten detail of S-H history is that Solveig won line honours in 1953. She was beaten to Battery Point by Wild Wave, but the larger yacht was then disqualified for “an incident on the starting line” – a remarkable echo of the Wild Oats XI/Comanche contretemps of 2017.

But I digress. My point is that the gulf between professional and amateur offshore campaigns has now widened to the point where a handicap win in the Sydney-Hobart race is normally beyond the reach of ordinary boat-owners and their crews. It requires a perfect set of weather conditions for the smaller yachts to have any chance on IRC. A measure of this performance chasm (and of how much the prestige of the overall win has been downgraded in favour of the line-honours contest) was that while the trophy presentation was being held, 18 competing yachts were still racing at sea. We can only imagine how forgotten they felt.  

The IRC results offer compelling evidence that size now truly matters.

The winner was Alive (66 feet), 2nd was Wild Oats X (66 feet), 3rd Voodoo (63 feet), 4th Winning Appliances (61 feet) and 5th Ichi Ban (52 feet). Those positions are a direct reflection of their respective LOA’s, in descending order. There’s no doubt that tactics, sailing skill and luck all play their part but it seems inescapable that unless you can afford to buy and run a big boat then your chances of winning a major offshore event on handicap are slim.

What can be done about this? As the rules currently stand, absolutely nothing.

There will always be owners with pockets deep enough to match their ambitions. But this gap keeps widening and sailors with more modest resources are being pushed further and further towards the margin of irrelevance.

The organisers of the Sydney-Hobart are hoping for a huge fleet for the 75th anniversary race next year. This is an issue they would do well to consider before then.

– Anarchist David