by John Curnow
In 12 short months, Michael Hiatt has taken himself from being the new Commodore a small armada to seventh on the Etchells World stage. That's impressive, so I could not wait to ask him a few more questions.
Michael Hiatt, Matthew Johns and Ben Lamb head uphill during the 2011 Victorian Etchells Championship. - Etchells World Championship
Predominantly best known as the owner/driver of the Farr55, Living Doll, a very happy Michael outlined how it all came about. 'Over twelve months ago we started chatting amongst our crew about trying to find another, smaller boat to hone our skills on and more in particular, my skills. We looked at the Melges 32, Thompson 7 and then Etchells. We settled on the Etchells as a result of having people like Ross Lloyd and Benny Lamb both sailing on the big Doll.'
Once the decision had been made, it was time to actually find an Etchells to buy. 'I scanned the local market and then went further afield. I found the two boats that would become Bad Doll and Extra Bad Doll, sitting with Pegasus Racing. A quick call to Adrian Finglas and then the two Etchells with trailers and all were on their way to their new home at the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria in Williamstown. The boats had been sitting in a shed for four years and they required a total refit. Ross soon sorted out the sails and Spotty from Ronstan came over and shortly thereafter it wasn't long until they were ready to sail.'
Michael with one of the Etchells that joined his armada. - Etchells World Championship
Rather than just good fortune, the second Etchells was part of a bigger plan. 'We thought it would be great to have a spare boat for other members of the big boat crew and out friends to use. To date the remainder of the crew has not used Bad Doll that much, but our friends sure have! Noel 'Nitro' Drennan used it for the Victorian State Championships at Brighton, Tom Braidwood was in it for the Nationals at Geelong and my friend, Rob 'Shogun' Hanna, used it at the Worlds in San Diego.'
Michael had laid out the intentions early, commenting 'When you boil it down, the best sailors and the best competition is in the Etchells and that is what we were searching for.' So with his eyes firmly fixed on San Diego, Michael's team set about firstly qualifying for and then doing well at the impending Worlds. One of the major hitouts on the road was the hotly contested and wildly differing conditions of the Victorian State Championships in March, where a lot of other big boat drivers also showed up in their 'little' Etchells. 'Our team of Benny Lamb, Mat Johns and I were slowly coming together, with myself needing the most of that coming together', mused Michael. 'We used the qualifiers for the Worlds to really ramp-up our program. After qualifying, Benny was really shaking his head. He is an exceptionally hard taskmaster, who had us working on avoiding bad bottom roundings, keeping the boat straight – you name it. We were working on the lot.'
'We had to do well at the States to make the final discussion. We scraped through, which was great, so our sights were set on the Worlds, but we certainly knew we needed to do a lot of training.'
Now this is where they faced one of their greatest challenges, not unlike many other crews, but they had Michael's already very significant workload increasing, along with some private matters and coordinating all that with getting Benny down from Newcastle at the correct times. 'As the date drew ever closer, yet more discussion took place and in the end we decided that a three week program in San Diego, prior to the Worlds, would be the only way we could get some type of respectful result.'
Like any good program, however, that was not the only component required. 'I also decided that we would try to persuade Steve Peel to operate a chase boat and coach us. He had already played quite a part in helping us prepare the Etchells and then getting them and us up to speed. With this in mind, the Las Vegas side-trip was cancelled and eventually the one to Mexico got sidelined, as we found we were really enjoying the training.'
So, despite missing out on the fun ashore, the team were to find out that they had more than enough to do around and on the water near the San Diego Yacht Club. 'The four of us arrived in San Diego, two days prior to the only lead up regatta, the two-day, Orca Weekend, which comprised of five races. The club also used it as a shake down for the Worlds.'
'As it turns out, our first day was also our only training day, as we had to get the boat from the storage yard and bring it back to the yacht club. We got off to a late start and so decided not to go out to the race area, but rather train around two fixed channel marks. Now these were high channel marks! For the last rounding, either I turned a little early or the kite was up too early and we won't argue about it here. The upshot is that the kite became completely wrapped around aforementioned channel marker. Subsequently, we also be became moored to it, as well. We managed to become detached, eventually, but this involved leaving the kite flagging about said mark! AUS 1278 was not a good look whatsoever, as boats that had been out training, were now slowly coming back in to port. It did not require much deliberation to decide that one of us would have to climb onto the mark and clear it of our not-so-old radial kite. Mercifully, I believe there were only a few photos taken…'
Of the Orca Weekend regatta, Michael said, 'The long start line with a centre start boat was something new for me and also there were about 45 boats competing, which makes it the largest Etchells fleet I had sailed in to date. We pulled a 25th, but it was really tough out there. At the top marks you could lose 12 spots easily within the blink of an eye. Our best result was a 15th, were we did our now becoming very usual, almost last place at the first top mark, only to stage a huge comeback. In short, there were some there were some glimmers of hope.'
Like many a campaign, they made their regatta plan for the Worlds on the back of a San Diego Yacht Club paper place mat. It provided for a long weekend in Vegas and then also a day trip Mexico. 'We had the Monday and Tuesday off sailing, but did quite a bit of boat work instead. Training started again on Wednesday and we were a little surprised to see that there were not many boats actually out there training with us. Chris Hampton was the only other Aussie Boat getting wet. Thursday was OK, as a few of the US Boats came out and we did some short course racing.'
'Training was going OK and we seemed to be doing miles of straight-line sailing. The following week Noel arrived and we put in some really hard yards with him. He was so quick and it appeared that he was always stopping and waiting for us. Steve Peel then really kicked in with observations from both boats. He went about making all the fine tweaks like crew position, trim and rig. The masts started to go so far back that the boom was getting closer and closer to the deck. The upshot was that Nitro wasn't waiting as much for us to catch up! We were getting a little more speed', remembered Michael.
That extra speed paid dividends, for the crew got on the scoreboard early, even being the highest placed Aussies at one point. 'We knew the first three days were going to be tough. In the first race we placed twentieth, which we were extremely happy with. In the second race, we were in the lead, only to be pipped at the finish. We were all so flat, thinking that we had just missed our only chance to win a race at a Worlds!'
Luckily for them the next day provided that magical first place, but 'I think the shock was too great, as we followed it up with a 36th', reflected Michael. On the third day they consolidated with a sixth and eighth place. Michael says simply of day four, 'A bad one'. The very much-required consistency was with them on days five and six, so a top ten result at a Worlds was their reward.
There may have been some tough days at the office early on, but you get the feeling that has only steeled Michael's resolve. The Commodore has his sights on Sydney and I would not mind betting a lot of time on the tiller of Extra Bad Doll. Look out channel markers and the opposition.