|Deckeye view of the Rolex Sydney-Hobart race|
Asour yacht powered up to the start line with 18 crew bustling around the decks of the 68-foot Clipper Ventures 10, I briefly contemplated what lay ahead in this 70th Rolex Sydney-Hobart race, reports KEVIN GREENbefore disappearing behind the grey sails of race favourite Wild Oats XI. In a mere four minutes Comanche would be out of the Sydney Heads pursued by Oats while we shouted our way through the mid-fleet throng with English skipper Piers Dudin shouting "starboard" to the armada of smaller yachts that jostled us. Overhead, sky writing declared the number "70" as a reminder of the editions of this great 628 mile race south to Tasmania and the old seafaring town of Hobart, a favourite port for the clipper ships sailing the Great Circle Route through the Southern Ocean. Now, our modern Clipper Ventures ship was on its way there with an expected time of four days, if we survived the first night's southerly buster that slammed into us as the crowds on South Head waved their goodbyes to us. With a reefed mainsail, staysail and Yankee foresail bar tight we bounced our way past Bondi Beach as the crew held on tightly to the rail. With four circumnavigations and more than 140,000 miles under her GRP hull, Clipper Ventures 10 is a proven ocean racing yacht and definitely my preferred ride in the fleet as the heavy hull sedately thuds into the oncoming two metre swells.
Firstly, a harbour strewn with 117 other race yachts, and a starboard tack among them, as we broadreached to the middle of the three start lines. Up ahead loomed the black hull of the super-maxi Comanche that glinted in the bright sunlight
Our multinational crew of mostly experienced offshore Clipper-trained sailors had been practising hard for the two weeks prior to the Boxing Day start, so were well acquainted with the 10-year-old CV10. Being a newcomer to the boat, this was something I appreciated, as they showed me the ropes during the first afternoon, while we bashed our way down the New South Wales coast. Around us the wind steadily rose to about 30 knots and grey clouds scudded past as the fleet spread out, with some choosing to tack inshore and others stood on in search of a push from the famed East Australian Current.
On the helm, in the late afternoon, I wrestled with the bucking wheel as the bow of the CV10 cut through the top of swells, while I spun it down to ease the landing of the 30-ton hull in the troughs.
Exhilarating steering, and something most helmsman thrive on but with my four-hour watch ending it was time to go below to my pipecot and pull the lee cloth high to prevent me being bucked out amid the sail bags. As the last to join the crew, inevitably I had the worst berth, right in the bow, so the rise and fall slammed me against the bunk above while my feet banged against the forward bulkhead. Welcome to a bumpy night of ocean racing, I wryly contemplated as my head rested on my kitbag in order to bring on some fitful sleep while my stomach wrestled to hold in the night's dinner of spaghetti Bolognese. It seemed like the blink of an eyelid before the calloused hand of sailing master Wayne Reed was nudging me awake for the night watch, so with head torch on I scrambled to clamber in to a warm layer followed by oilskins, lifejacket and harness before grimly climbing the heaving ladder to reach the cockpit, where my three other watch-mates braced themselves on the steeply heeled deck. Ahead of us the dark silhouettes on the horizon turned out to be coal ships, notifying us that we were off Wollongong, 50 miles south of Sydney. As we sped past at 10 knots my eyes stung with constant sea spray that clouded the compass reading of 180 degrees for our rhumb line course; while I willed daylight's arrival to cheer us all up.
Morning showed the low lying coast to starboard and another clear sunlight day to enjoy. "There's a shark," crewman Alex from Wales called out as we passed the flopping fin of what turned out to be a sunfish. Growing to nearly the size of a small car they are hazardous; and, in fact, ended the race of the 100-foot super-maxi Perpetual Loyal that very day, along with about six other yachts that had been badly shaken during the night. But our own problem was looming as a high pressure system hovered over to suck the wind pressure, leaving us lolling for hours as lighter weight competitors sneaked inshore and offshore of us to snatch what zephyrs there was. These included the Sailors with Disabilities yacht that stole inshore and over the horizon, where mares tales in the afternoon sky foretold yet another change coming. To while away the time a quiet lunch of quiche and salad was handed up on deck and the news from the scheduled call-up showed us now firmly at the back half of the 109 fleet. A glaring sun drove us to smother ourselves in sun cream and strip off the damp oilskins, before the reefs were shaken out of the mainsail and the heavy Yankee headsail changed up to the largest; the number 1.
Many of our crew had flown from Europe for this race so they were enjoying the warm sailing and their first Rolex Sydney to Hobart. Pamela from Aberdeen had swapped shifts with a co-worker to escape her stint on a North Sea oil rig for a few weeks, while young racing sailor Sang Cho was the first South Korean to sail with Clipper Ventures; but both were Clipper veterans with plenty of offshore experience, so were revelling in their first Hobart. They would need all this experience and training in the ensuing 24 hours, as the northerly wind filled in and spinnaker work commenced. It began with the hoisting of the biggest spinnaker, our number 1 asymmetric. Our boat was a training yacht for the crews going on the new Clipper 70s so had been changed to asymmetric spinnakers and flew these from a small bowsprit retro-fitted. Unlike other competitors our Clipper 68 was built for ocean racing so all equipment was very heavy and required plenty of crew to handle most jobs including the heaving of the sail bags from our crew quarters to the deck.Bass Strait kite run
Down at the navigation station skipper Piers made the obligatory High Frequency radio call at Green Cape to say we were proceeding over Bass Strait. As the wind rose to above 15 knots we reduced sail to the smaller spinnaker which meant some of us had to go below decks for 30 minutes to re-tie the big kite with woollen string and repack it, ready for its next deployment. Sweating and tired we gasped our way through the work as CV 10 sped into the night but were cheered by the off-watch crew cooking roast pork and savoury rice for dinner with Christmas cake for dessert. Back on the helm again a clear sky showed all the stars, allowing me to steer towards the Southern Cross as shoreward a half moon rose to lighten up the swells while brilliant phosphorescent trails silhouetted the paths of dolphins that darted across our bow waves. "Brilliant," declared health worker Sharon who'd flown down from Queensland to become a mainstay in the pit, where all the halyards were hoisted from. But there wasn't much time for contemplation as the on-watch of eight crew rotated between jobs.
For me, a really great part of the Clipper experience is that everyone is trained to do every job; including steering, even though some junior crew can decline should they feel not quite ready. Controlling the spinnaker can be one of the more physical and stressful jobs, so as the wind rose as we sped across Bass Strait, crew were rotated every 15 minutes from their stance on the foredeck holding the heavy spinnaker sheet. "I found the Clipper training fairly intense but worthwhile," explained Melbourne doctor Stephen who was one of the few not to have done a Clipper round-the-world leg, instead enjoying cruising his own S&S 34. Meantime, the Sunday afternoon in Hobart was being enlivened with the arrival of winner Wild Oats XI after a mere two days and two hours at sea.Forty knots at Tasman Island
But as on my previous Rolex Sydney-Hobart the weather had more challenges in store for us as we passed Maria Island midway down the Tasman shore. Our Predictwind software was showing 30-to-to 40 knot westerly winds for our approach to the fabled Storm Bay, the 40 miles of water that led into Hobart, so as Sunday night turned into Monday and the wind rose we doused our spinnaker and ran goose-winged, with the Yankee headsail poled out on the long alloy spinnaker pole that required four crew to move. Following seas rose to above two metres as our latitude fell to 41 degrees south, prompting Alex to declare that it was similar to his Southern Ocean Clipper experience. As the towering cliffs of Tasman Island became shrouded we braced for the inevitable wind blast. I laboured with novice Australian sailor Jay to pull the orange storm trysail forward then hank it onto the forestay as the wind shrieked to 40 knots, before clambering below to do my turn on the washing-up. The galley was in chaos as outside a huge blast spun the boat, causing the boiling kettle to jump out of its fiddles and fly across the galley while dishes flew like confetti and I cursed loudly at the weather Gods.
But much worse was to follow for others. Rounding into Storm Bay, a small Cessna plane flew past at mast height heading north to where another back marker yacht, Mistraal, laboured. This turned out to be the last flight and moments for the 28-year-old pilot and 61-year-old Hobart photographer as unbeknown to us it fatally plunged into the sea. We meantime bashed shoreward across the inky black night in Storm Bay before our friend the moon rose to once again shine on us as we passed the famous Tin Pot light and the finish line on the sheltered Derwent River.China Clipper 2015/16
Clipper Ventures is recruiting for next year's Rolex Sydney-Hobart race and the famous 40,000 mile round the world race. The company's new Clipper 70 yachts will also call at Qingdao, China, during Leg 5 of the 2015/16 race that takes 11 gruelling months. For more information: www.clipperroundtheworld.com