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How to be an Ocean Racer: Beginners Sydney to Hobart - The Start
Sydney Harbour - The Start
I was a complete beginner to ocean racing and I'd chosen to break my duck in the sport's most difficult test of man and boat; would I make it to the end?
This isn't a technical piece, more an insight about the experience of Ocean Yacht Racing from the perspective of a complete beginner.
Cruising Yacht Club of Australia - Sydney Harbour, 26th December 2006
Its all mayhem here; 8:30am Boxing Day, its bright and sunny with a medium breeze to make all the flags flutter. Extra coffee stalls, news cameras, lots of nervous looking people with deep tans and wrap around sunnies, carrying sail bags, foul weather kit and last minute provisions. The boat is ready to go. I've already gone ;-) .... its important to get your pre race dump in! Sorry if thats too much info but if you saw the bog on board you would understand why!! The astronaughts had it easy with their bathroom stuff compared to sailors in a small pitching and rocking boat with no hand holds. Have had my sea sickness tablet and am raring to go. The start will be great as its a lovely sunny day but a bit chilly for the time of year and the forecast to get colder as we go south. Will be glad of the two layers of thermals. Weather forecast is good, with a deep low over Tazzy moving away east and a high pressure system coming in behind with southerly breeze. Means we will be beating against the wind and waves for most of the way. This will slow us down and make the boat bounce a lot (not good - see above!!) so expect at least four days to Hobart maybe five. Hope the food and water last if its the latter.
When you get on a boat and set sail there is no opportunity to say 'well actually its not quite what I imagined and I'd like to get off now....please'. If you run a marathon, you can walk or stop when it gets tough. If you are up a mountain and it get's a but nippy, you can come down. But when you are one hundred miles or more out to sea and mother nature is 'biggin it large', there is no getting off, there is no turning back, you can't stick your bottom lip out and take your ball home in a huff. All you can do is tough it out, say your prayers and hope your shipmates know what they are doing.
The first night out from Sydney was just such an occasion. The start had been a big adrenaline rush. Seventy eight yachts of all shapes and sizes blasting down the harbour. Sunshine, crowds, helicopters, wooooo hooo. Out past the Heads the fleet headed out to catch the offshore current. Our tactics were to stay inshore and as close to the rhum line as possible. It worked. For a while 'Global Yacht Racing Next' was leading the Sydney 38 class. There was a good steady south easterly of fifteen knots and the boat was slicing nicely through the swell. I went off watch at midnight and everything was working well. Two hours later I'm awake with a start. The boat was hammering into a heavy swell and the wind strength had doubled intensity with gusts over thirty knots. Feet were thudding on the deck inches above my head. The on-watch were shouting to be heard over the din of the wind and waves. Water was spraying down the hatch. The whole boat was shuddering and shaking. A shout came down for another hand to come on deck. Dave went up. I got into my foulies and waited to be called if needed.
Next minute the number one headsail was dumped into the cabin on top of me. I struggled to get it folded, too big and soaking wet to manage in a space not much bigger than your average broom cupboard. You couldn't stand up as you needed all your grip to hold on as the boat pitched and heaved. I had to sit on the floor and shove it into the forward compartment out of the way. Dressed in full foul weather gear and life jacket it was so hot. When you really exert yourself it brings on the sea sickness nausea, as if you didn't have enough to cope with.
I had the cushy job! Jim was on the foredeck trying to drop the number one and get the smaller number three headsail up. At one point he was hanging onto the forestay horizontal as the boat fell off a wave and dropped five metres with a crash, throwing him back onto the deck. He was lucky to escape with bruises. Jim's wasn't the only damage. A big gust and a heavy wave breaking over the foredeck combined to rip a metre long gash in the number one headdie as it came down. Not being able to use that sail again cost us our lead. The knot and a half extra speed the bigger sail gives you means that the other boats in the class can pull a big lead over four days. They slowly disappear over the horizon in front of you and there is nothing you can do about it. No, starting the engine isn't allowed...
That first night was a real bruiser. We had it good compared to some. Koomooloo, a beautiful classic wooden yacht, fell off two big waves in succession and split the hull. The British Army Royal Corps of Signals yacht, Adventure, turned back to help. Koomooloo couldn't have picked a better craft to come to their assistance. Adventure is a big steel boat and the crew were specially trained in man-overboard and survival at sea. Everyone was picked up safely. Maximus and ABN Amro two of the race favourites lost their rigging. The mast of Maximus falling on deck and injuring five crew. These are Volvo Ocean racers, the best there is. An indication of just how tough the Sydney Hobart is.
Extreme sports can be defined as a way of killing yourself with the killing bit taken out at the last moment. By now I knew what I was up against. I had tried to not think about the dangers before I started but the first night was a reality check smack in the face. Stupidly, I had read Rob Mundle's great book 'Fatal Storm' before I left, about the 1998 race when six sailors died, five boats sank and fifty-seven people were rescued by helicopter. I had another four days of extreme sport to look forward to...
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