How to be an Ocean Racer - Sydney to Hobart - Sailing a small boat in the Tasman Sea

What they don't tell you in Sailing School

The Bass Straight, which separates the Australian mainland from Tasmania, is one of the roughest 100 miles of water on the planet. The great Southern Ocean meets the huge Pacific Ocean and their handshakes are not always friendly. It was with more than a little trepidation that I clutched on to the post of the safety rail and watched the land disappear slowly behind us.

The sea was still a little upset from being roughed up by the wind on the first night and was making progress uncomfortable. The swell in the Bass was shorter, in that the distance between waves was less, which compressed the water vertically, so the boat had to punch its way through the waves as opposed to slipping sneakily over the top and down the other side. This meant the boat was inclined to drop suddenly off a wave leaving you suspended in mid air until the deck came back up to meet you. It's a bit like having your backside slapped for four hours at a time.

Having your rear end take a pasting isn't the only discomfort to contend with. The basic bodily functions are a serious challenge. Taking a pee becomes a perilous pantomime. The skipper had thoughtfully provided a hospital style pee bottle for communal use, complete with generous opening and lid. When nature could no longer be ignored the rigmarole began of going below and peeling back enough layers to gain the necessary access. Foul weather gear consists of a sturdy outer coat, high pantaloons (like waterproof dungarees), then fleece trousers followed by thermals and ultimately the base undercrackers. For the generously endowed I'm sure the operation is a breeze but for normal folk it's like looking for a chipolata in a laundry basket with one hand while standing in a 38 foot tumble dryer.

Once accomplished, the products of your perseverance have to be paraded on deck for all to admire. The route of shame takes you up the slippery cabin steps, through the hatch then a shuffle across deck to the rail - the down-wind rail I might add - before depositing in the briny; all with one hand clutching tightly to the pee bottle, like Pele displaying the World Cup and the other hand clinging even tighter to anything solid enough to stop you joining your own wee in the sea.

This strategy, if awkward was achievable. The skipper however thought that the entertainment could be enlivened by losing the lid overboard. So now operation over-the-side became a consummate game of skill. Just when it seemed the humiliation could be no worse, our butter fingered skipper lost the whole container overboard! They say necessity is the mother of invention and not being able to face stripping off to sit on the head (more later) or partially disrobing at the back of the boat, I attacked a water bottle with my Swiss army knife and hacked off the top of a one litre plastic water bottle. This solved the problem of having a receptacle to pee into but it added the extra excitement of avoiding circumcision on the rather sharp serrated edge of the newly decapitated bottle.

The dreaded Head in stationary mode
The dreaded Head in stationary mode

Toilet with a Mast

These are the gory details they never tell you about in the sailing best sellers. They also failed to be mentioned on the two week training course, which was my introduction to the romance of Ocean Racing. But worse was to come. Stormy waters in the Bass Straight were one thing but ask any of the crew what was their enduring memory of the trip and it won't be fighting with a torn headsail in a thirty knott gale or gazing at a sky stuffed with more stars than an X-Factor dressing room. All of them would gladly face a raging tempest than take a dump in a Sydney 38 toilet. not for nothing is this boat affectionately referred to among the sailing community as 'a toilet with a mast'.

A Sydney 38 Head is located in the for'ard compartment right in the bow's of the boat. It's also where all the sails are stowed and where the crew hang their wet foul weather gear. It has a primitive system of valves which allow sea water in on one side and the bangers and mash out the other via a grinder. Get these valves mixed up and you are in the shit, literally. In calm conditions it's just about workable but in a ten foot swell it's like taking a dump in a wardrobe that is falling down a flight of stairs. The lack of hand holds is also a problem; a sudden large wave can easily deposit the unwary sailor on the cabin sole (deck) shortly followed by the contents of the dunny. It's the nearest experience the contemporary person can come to a stroll down a narrow street in Tudor London, where the unwary stroller could soon find themselves wearing the contents of someone's gazunder as it was casually emptied from an upstairs window.

I for one, was hanging on to my breakfast for as long as humanly possible.

The Bass Straight saw fit to let us pass unmolested and it was with a feeling of great relief that I stepped on deck at first light on the fourth day to see the distant mountains of Tasmania on the horizon.

I've painted a fairly bleak picture of sailing so far but there is a silver lining to the cloud of physical and mental hardship. As the winds moderated; tedium replaced excitement: time to contemplate and reflect as the hypnotic inky depths swept inches beneath salt stained boots. As the hours ticked slowly by, nature would unexpectedly pop a champagne moment; a graceful solitary albatross skimming waves; shooting stars like tracer bullets and best of all the ghost dolphins - phosphorescent torpedos trailing sparkles through the moonlit sea.

There was still another day to go before the finishing line in Hobart and there were places to make up, sails were in sight ahead and we were still in the race.


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The race is on
The race is on

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