by Jim Gale
Bruce and Drew Taylor after finishing the Rolex Sydney Hobart last year. Photo courtesy Bruce Taylor
With the return of his seasoned crew and much improved Caprice 40 boat Chutzpah, veteran sailor Bruce Taylor hopes to end his more than 30 years of misery by finally winning the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race
The crew of Chutzpah after finishing the Rolex Sydney Hobart (Drew and Bruce second and third from left on rail). Photo courtesy Bruce Taylor
For more than 30 years he has spurned the so much more convenient Melbourne to Hobart dash. Instead, year in year out, he has come up to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia in Sydney so that he can turn around and bash his way south down the punishing NSW coast and across Bass Strait, all for Australian yachting’s most coveted prize.
Yet despite a second overall and a slew of wins in his class, the Tattersall’s Cup for overall first on handicap has eluded him.
And this mad obsession has proven contagious in the Taylor household. Son Drew will again fly down from Hong Kong to join Bruce and his veteran crew, the 21st time father and son have crossed the Boxing Day start line together - an extraordinary record
There are times when he has come so close, when Chutzpah - for that is the name of every one of the Victorian yachtsman’s Hobart racers - has led the fleet at Tasman Island, only to stall under the cliffs, or more frustrating still, bob around in the breathless midnight to dawn Derwent River parking lot just a few miles short of the finish line.
And there’s the rub. The current Chutzpah is a gloriously fast Reichel/Pugh designed Caprice 40 that is a sort of mini TP52; a super quick running and reaching fun machine. If you sail a TP52 to its limit, you are a good chance to get up the Derwent River early evening, before it shuts down. A mini TP52 like Chutzpah is odds on to get to Tasman Island sometime between midnight and 3am. It’s just the maths of race starting time versus distance.
Taylor doesn’t want a costly TP52. What he needs is a few straight days of 20 knot northerlies so that he can reach Tasman Island before the witching hour. Get that and he reckons he and his Corinthian crew will throw a cat with attitude amongst the hotshot professional pigeons crewing aboard the race favourites.
What he doesn’t need is your typical Rolex Sydney Hobart; a mixture of fresh northerlies for sprinting and bitter southerly slogs to windward. 'Chutzpah is a very extreme boat,' Taylor concedes, 'Not an all-round boat at all. I told Reichel/Pugh I wanted the fastest running and reaching 40-footer in the world, and that is what we’ve got, but if it’s an upwind we will be caned.'
The man most likely to wield the cane is Taylor’s arch divisional rival, Ed Psaltis. Psaltis has already won the Hobart outright, ironically on a former Chutzpah, and Taylor ranks him one of the world’s best Corinthian ocean racers.
Last year, Psaltis replaced his all-round modified Farr 40 AFR Midnight Rambler with a faster reaching and running boat, very similar to Chutzpah, but less break-or-breakthrough. The current AFR Midnight Rambler has sacrificed a bit of downwind speed for an edge uphill. Psaltis figures that, in a typical Hobart Taylor will burn him off in the northerlies, but he will claw time back on handicap during the southerlies.
The crew of AFR Midnight Rambler are relentless. They drive their boat hard. The boat’s name, Midnight Rambler, testifies to Psaltis’ conviction that the race is won in the coldest, darkest hours when tired rivals drop that that little bit off the pace. However, Taylor is confident that if he does get the right conditions, he and his crew still have the drive and skill to make the most of it, even if some of the joints creek a bit these days.
'Thirty year ago we were the youngest crew in the race,' Taylor jokes, 'now we are the geriatrics.'
As a group, they race around the buoys most weekends on a Sydney 38 - and Chutzpah when the big ocean races come around. 'The Sydney 38 keeps us sharp,' Taylor says, 'but ocean racing is a different game.'
Stoic endurance and tactical smarts have to make up for aging muscles and backs. 'We are all busy doing different things. We don’t see much of each other off the water, but when we’re sailing, there’s a special crew dynamic, an esprit de corp. We’re very lucky. We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.'
And Taylor’s son Drew is bringing some extra youth and muscle with him from Hong Kong this year, in the shape of grinder Phil Crinon. 'Phil just keeps on grinding as long as you feed him,' Drew laughs.
'We were starting to think we might need electric winches,' Taylor chortles, 'but we won’t need any of that with Phil around.'
Drew says that it says a lot about the cohesion and spirit of Bruce’s regular team that he is able to slot back in each year and take up where they left off.
For his part, Taylor senior concedes that there is a pay-off in having some youngsters on the boat. 'Drew and I are both reasonably competitive, but he drives harder than I do these days. At 62 I am probably lacking a bit of his stamina, but neither of us is out there for a cruise.'
There is something a little quixotic in Bruce Taylor’s most recent campaigns for the Tattersall’s Cup though. It’s the boat, you see. She is extreme. If winning was absolutely everything, then he probably would have built himself a slower boat.
That’s right - slower.
Remember, this is a handicap race. Every yacht, ultimately, is racing against its handicap, or corrected time. The 40 footers that have succeeded have typically arrived at Tasman Island about 12 hours later than Chutzpah is likely to get there, and sped up the Derwent River on an afternoon breeze.
And while the current rating system looks kindly on the new more extreme 50 and 60 footers, in the 40 foot division the handicap rules still favour heavier yachts like the Beneteau 40s. Chutzpah isn’t just fighting AFR Midnight Rambler; she is fighting the hours she gives away to the more traditional 40’s.
Taylor, though, endured the dog days of the IOR. He’s has had enough of the humdrum. 'A Beneteau 40 is twice Chutzpah’s weight,' Taylor observes. 'They take as long to get to Hobart as the boats did in 1985.' In contrast, 'For sheer sailing pleasure, Chutzpah is out of this world.'
Drew agrees. 'She is a brilliant boat, definitely the way forward. When you’re screaming down waves at 18 to 22 knots in a 40 foot yacht, it’s unbelievable,' he says enthusiastically.
The modern fliers like Chutzpah are exhilarating, agile, strong, and the future. They are also stripped out, noisy, bone jarring. They are demanding and athletic and apt to remind you of your venerable years each time they blast off the top of a 10 foot swell into empty space.
Taylor wonders how much longer he can keep putting in the huge effort and stress of campaigning a serious contender in the CYCA’s annual 628 nautical mile race to Hobart, not to mention bringing the boat up from Melbourne first.
'The CYCA is fantastic; very helpful and welcoming, but it takes so much more effort doing everything from another city than just going down to the boat from home for the race.'
Last year, barely an hour before the race start, flight delays meant he and his crew were still wondering if their wet weather gear and food would arrive in time from Melbourne. Fortunately, Musto clothing came to the party with wet weather gear for those crews affected, but then flights arrived in time.
'This could be my last,' Taylor says.
'Yeah, right,' says Drew. 'Five times he’s said ‘this is my last boat’, and god knows how many times ‘this is my last Hobart’. And I can’t give up until he does. I’d look too much like a wimp. One day we’ve got to win this bloody thing.'
Taylor really wants to win the Rolex Sydney Hobart. Maybe then he could relax and join his fellow Melburnians at the Boxing Day Test for once. But damn it, he’ll do it in a sports car - not a mobile home.