Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race – 70 years

by David Payne

Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race

The Race

One of Australia’s most popular and enduring sporting events is the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. The race starts on Boxing Day and the passage down the east coast grabs national attention over the Christmas and New Year break, giving ocean racing an annual moment in the spotlight. It is internationally recognised as one of the three classic blue-water ocean races, along with the Fastnet Race in the UK and Bermuda Race on the east coast of the USA.

Rolex Sydney to Hobart

The 2014 race will be the 70th in the series. In a sign of the times the race has a contemporary sponsor, Rolex, but the heritage of the race is now strongly recognised by all who have taken part in the past as well as those involved in this year’s event, and it’s a much bigger story than just a three-to-four-day race down the coast.

Ocean racing is just that—racing yachts out on the open sea. It takes place in a natural environment and the crews and yachts have no control over what conditions the sea may provide. There are flat calms through to storm-strength gales, currents and tides, variable wave and swell patterns, and the ever-shifting wind, over day and night—the only constant is change. A race report from the first event describes it well: ‘those two irresponsibles—wind and wave’.

And there are no lanes, signposts or field markings to show the way. The boundaries of the course are the coastline and the landmarks that tick off milestones on the course. These days you can rely on GPS to pinpoint where you are, but in the past precise navigation depended on how accurate you were with sun, moon and star observations. This was a time when your direction and destiny very much relied on human-powered calculations and then, when the weather closed in, your best estimation.

'Ichi Ban' soon after the start of the 2002 Rolex Sydney to Hobart.
'Ichi Ban' soon after the start of the 2002 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.

© Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

There is no pit lane to pull over into for repairs, changes of personnel and refuelling—once you start, you have to be self-sufficient to the end. You are always working the yacht and can change the configuration while you are sailing—different sail trim and combinations allow the crew to adjust the boat to the conditions, and the winners monitor and optimise the boat constantly to keep it sailing at its full potential. But you’re working with very expensive and sometimes fragile gear and sail changes have to be done with care, especially in challenging conditions.

The backup to gear failure is how you react to incidents on board, making running repairs where possible or having something spare in reserve or a margin of safety that allows you to carry on despite damage.

Navigator Bill Lieberman on Wayfarer in the 1945 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race
Navigator Bill Lieberman on Wayfarer in the 1945 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.

Courtesy Cruising Yacht Club of Australia

The safety net as such is waiting off to one side, hopefully not needing to be initiated. Communications, flares, a life raft, EPIRBs, survival suits, even pre-race training and simulations—this is all secondary gear rigorously monitored and enforced, yet marking time until things go seriously wrong. Onshore emergency services are there to respond, but they too have their controls and limits, and self-help among the competing yachts is a code of practice that comes into play to help avoid a catastrophe. The risk of this is always there, and there have been notable times when it has played out in public view.

Teamwork and leadership are intrinsic qualities needed throughout to keep harmony among crew, to maintain their enthusiasm and ability to push on, and to keep it all under control and operating at a high level.

It’s a race full of intriguing contrasts: how the amateurs and Corinthian sailors mix with the professional sportspeople and Olympic representatives in the crews; the high-tech races against those of the previous generation; even down to the historic—how many other sports have such a diverse range of participants and equipment, all sent off at the same time, aiming for the same goal, on the same course? The top boats were all high-tech in their time, but those of today seem even more so—hugely expensive racing machines built with advanced materials to fine tolerances, carrying only what is needed to support the crew so they can operate efficiently, forcing them to live and work around the yacht and its gear.

Participants will experience a huge range of emotions over the journey, and require stamina to see it through. The extraordinary scenery along the way seems a contradiction to the serious racing intent, but the atmosphere can be uplifting and this feeling becomes part of the reason crews return to race in the open sea time after time.

Experience is a factor that helps enormously and only comes with time and determination, but come it does for the many sailors who feel the addiction of this sport and return each year to take on the Hobart race.

The crew of Ilina during the 1960s, with a young  Rupert Murdoch  third from the left leaning on the boom.
The crew of Ilina during the 1960s, with a young Rupert Murdoch third from the left leaning on the boom.

Courtesy Cruising Yacht Club of Australia

The history of the race

The Sydney to Hobart race began in an off-the-cuff fashion. In the latter part of World War II, sailors on Sydney Harbour formed the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) to promote cruising and casual races in lieu of those suspended during the previous war years. Their first official event was in October 1944. During 1945 three of the members—Jack Earl, Peter Luke and Bert Walker—planned a cruise to Hobart in their respective yachts after Christmas. One evening Captain John Illingworth RN gave a talk to the club members, and afterwards Peter Luke suggested Illingworth might like to join the cruise. Illingworth’s reply was ‘I will, if you make a race of it’.

And so it was. The Sydney Morning Herald on 16 June 1945 noted that ‘Plans for a race from Sydney to Hobart, early in January 1946 are being made by the Cruising Yacht Club … five possible entries had already been received’.

Later, in the Australian Power Boat and Yachting Monthly of 10 October 1945, there is a more formal notice.

Yacht Race to Tasmania: It is expected that an Ocean Yacht Race may take place from Sydney to Hobart, probably starting on December 26, 1945. Yachtsmen desirous of competing should contact Vice President Mr P Luke … Entries close December 1 1945.

From these small beginnings the cruise became a race and Captain Illingworth helped with the arrangements, showing the club how to measure the boats and handicap the event. The plans, expectations, the probables and possibles of earlier reports—they all turned into reality at the entrance to Sydney Harbour just inside North Head on Boxing Day in 1945, when nine yachts set forth, including Illingworth in his recently purchased yacht Rani. Illingworth had previous experience of ocean racing from his homeland in England and in the USA, where he was a respected competitor, and he prepared Rani to race to Hobart, and not just sail there. The other sailors had a more relaxed attitude.

Crew of the yacht Wayfarer in 1945
The crew of Wayfarer in the 1945 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race: (Left to right) Geoff Ruggles, Len Willsford, Brigadier A.G. Mills, Peter Luke (at rear), Bill Lieberman, Fred Harris.

Courtesy Cruising Yacht Club of Australia

That first race encapsulated many features now associated with the event, and in hindsight was a warning of things to come. A strong southerly gale hit the fleet on the first day, and many were unprepared for the rough seas that scattered the fleet. Some boats hove to, one retired and the others sought shelter. Wayfarer’s crew went ashore twice to phone home before resuming the race, including a stop at Port Arthur. According to Seacraft magazine of March 1946, ‘Licensee of the Hotel Arthur put on a barrel of beer specially for Wayfarer’s crew, and they enjoyed their first drink of draught beer since they left Sydney on Boxing Day. A local resident treated the ship’s company to a crayfish supper, which was the gastronomic highlight of the voyage’.

Meanwhile the experienced Illingworth, who had prepared Rani and his crew well, had continued to race his yacht throughout. Before the race it was reported that the RAAF would put planes on patrol to keep the yachts under observation, but the weather had made that very difficult. When the gale eased and an aircraft was dispatched to look for the fleet, Rani was so far ahead that it was not located and was presumed missing. The press had the event as their headline article, and later the sudden reappearance of Rani off Tasman Island was a sensation. Rani won easily and the remaining seven boats gradually crossed the line in Hobart, bringing more stories of the race ashore for the public to enjoy.

This impressive coverage for the period ensured the race would continue, and by March 1946 media reports noted that the club secretary, A C Cooper, had said it would be an annual event starting on Boxing Day. As it went ahead in its second year the race included tighter regulations based on those used by the Royal Ocean Racing Club of Britain.

Spectators watching the start of the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart.
Spectators watching the start of the 2006 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.

© Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

It has been run every year since, and the fortunes of the event have varied. There has been consistent strong public interest, and crowds line the harbour and its foreshores to watch the Boxing Day start, a tradition in parallel with the Melbourne Boxing Day Test match.

Media interest is not confined to the east coast; the race is followed throughout the country and the results are reported internationally. The attention is often on who will finish first, and the focus on this line honours contest has been encouraged to maintain the media interest. Vessels from overseas have raced regularly with the local fleet since the early 1960s, and the race has been won on handicap and line honours by a modest number of craft from outside Australia.

It quickly became recognised as one of the major offshore races, along with the famous Fastnet race in the UK and the Bermuda race starting in the USA, due to the tough and demanding conditions the fleet usually has to overcome. In response to this, the CYCA established good safety precautions quite early on, which for many years it updated in line with the evolution of the participating craft. It often established precautions or limits not enforced in other events. From 1951 onwards there has been a radio relay vessel accompanying the fleet, and safety items carried by the boats and crew remain a priority in the organisation of the race.

1986 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race
Start of the 1986 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race

Courtesy Cruising Yacht Club of Australia Archives

The 1998 race captured world attention when the most extreme conditions in the race’s history were encountered. A strong southerly-flowing current was mixed with a south-west gale caused by an almost cyclonic depression travelling east across Bass Strait. This had developed soon after the race began and was predicted by many weather forecasters. Winds of more than 80 knots were recorded, but the opposing wind and current directions produced difficult seas with an unusual number of enormous waves which caused the most damage. Yachts were knocked down beyond 90 degrees, and some rolled completely. Numerous yachts were unable to withstand the continuous battering and were forced to heave to or otherwise adopt survival techniques before retiring with damage. A small number were abandoned and later sunk, and six lives were lost off three boats in different circumstances.

The rescue effort was chaotic for a period as there were too many calls to respond to, but the heroic efforts by the civilian and service rescue helicopter crews, filmed by press helicopters working in the same extreme conditions, along with help provided by racing yachts standing by stricken competitors, combined to save many sailors and avoided a total catastrophe.

In the reviews and enquiries that followed a number of factors emerged that had contributed to the disaster. The race organisers then moved quickly to address the deficiencies in the equipment and experience which had been highlighted by the race conditions and the fleet’s inability to cope with them.

The race has had highlights in many areas, in particular the dash for line honours. Perfect conditions with a northeast breeze have helped establish race records. In 1973 the reinforced cement-hulled Helsal—referred to by some as the ‘floating footpath’—caught people by surprise to set a record, but it did not last long. In 1975, the world-beating maxi yacht Kialoa III came across from the USA, and owner Jim Kilroy steered it to a new record, well under three days. The 1999 the water-ballasted Volvo 60 class yacht Nokia was able to take maximum advantage of the strong north-east wind pattern. Nokia set a new race record of 1 day 19 hours and 48 minutes at an average speed of 14.39 knots. This was nine hours faster than Kialoa III ’s longstanding record from 1975, on which Morning Glory had briefly improved by 30 minutes in 1996, 21 years after Kialoa’s triumph.

A curious line honours winner was Nocturne in 1953, a 10.66-metre (35-foot) long sloop designed by Alan Payne, which mastered unusually light and fickle conditions to beat much larger craft in a slow race with no retirements.

Wild Oats XI about to finish 2011 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race
Wild Oats XI about to finish the 2011 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Taken from Sandy Bay, Hobart.

Wikimedia Commons/JJ Harrison

The record now stands at 1 day, 18 hours and 23 minutes, set by Wild Oats XI in 2012. Wild Oats XI has twice taken line honours, set the record and won on handicap (2005 and 2012). Rule changes since 1999 permitted vessels up to 30.48 metres (100 feet) in length, and with favourable conditions the new super-maxis built to this limit easily had the potential to improve on the record.

When Huey Long from the USA brought his aluminium yacht Ondine in 1962, one of the closest finishes occurred when Ondine narrowly beat the Fife-designed schooner Astor and the steel Solo across the line, but Solo won on handicap.

The handicap winner is the true winner of the race, a fact sometimes obscured to the public as the bigger boats dominate the headlines. A small number of boats have ‘done the double’ and won both, including Wild Oats XI in 2005, which scored a treble with the race record as well. However quite often the trophy has gone to a well-sailed yacht towards the middle of the finishing order, and sometimes the changeable weather patterns favour the smaller yachts towards the tail end. The most notable handicap winner is the Halvorsen brothers’ Freya, which achieved the remarkable feat of winning three races in succession, from 1963 to 1965. Love & War has also won the race three times, in 1974, 1978 and 2006. Screw Loose, at 9.1 metres LOA, won in 1979 and is the smallest yacht to have won the race.

The end of the race is marked with celebrations by all the crews, and the area around Hobart’s Constitution Dock is packed with spectators, crews and their families who have come down to join them. In the same tradition as at the start, the people from Hobart turn out to see the finish, and even when this occurs overnight there is still a strong contingent on and off the water waiting for the gun to go off.

For many yachtspeople the Sydney to Hobart race is the highpoint of their season and their sport. Some aspire to do it just once, while others come back year after year. The challenging conditions might appear to be the primary drawcard in many instances, but the attractions of blue-water sailing have seduced many competitors in the long run. The moods and atmosphere of the wind and ocean, and the satisfaction of sailing a yacht in these elements, are truly felt and understood by the great majority of the crews.

The combination of strong public interest and the enduring attraction of the race for the competitors would seem to ensure that the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race will remain a regular event, and continue to contribute to Australia’s maritime heritage.

Yacht racing towards the finish line in Hobart.
The first yacht to finish receives a royal welcome in Hobart for the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.

© Rolex/Daniel Forster