by Jim Gale
New Zealand’s 49ers Olympic silver medalist Blair Tuke will make his first big step towards his transition to big boat racing when he joins seasoned skipper Ray Haslar and the RP42 Rikki crew for the upcoming Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2012.
Blair Tuke and Peter Burling on the 2012 Olympic medal podium at Portland. Tuke will take part at Boxing Day’s Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race
Life hasn’t been the same for Kiwi 49er sailor Blair Tuke since the 23 year-old won a silver medal at the London Olympics, catapulting him from young-electrician-with-big-dreams to rock star with the world at his feet in his native Bay of Islands and beyond.
Those feet have barely touched the ground since September; but for a while, anyway, the merry-go-round of speaking engagements and glad-handing politicians is on pause. Like a million sailors before him, Blair Tuke has found that the ocean can indeed be a soothing thing.
For a few weeks now the Olympian has been just one of the crew, and a junior one at that, on the RP42 Rikki, out of Kerikeri, New Zealand, bound for the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s Rolex Sydney Hobart.
'It has been a fun couple of months, but it is good to get away from New Zealand for a bit,' he says. 'The first night out on the delivery trip to Sydney I was on watch, just me and the sound of the waves, and I could relax. There were no more speeches or appearances to make,' Tuke said.
He can get back to what he does best, winning a boat race and, he hopes, in the process launch a new ocean-racing career.
'I’d love to be able to make a career out of sailing. I want to do the Volvo Ocean Race next - and some big boat sailing. Go back to the Olympics in four years, and do one better than I did this year.'
Tuke has already spent part of December at Sail Sydney racing his 49er at the Olympic classes regatta.
'When he said he wanted to do the Volvo Ocean Race, I told him he had better do the Rolex Sydney Hobart with me first, see if you like it,' says Ray Haslar, Rikki’s owner/skipper and eight-time veteran of the 628 nautical mile race to Hobart.
By his own admission, Tuke did his last ocean voyage when he was 12 or 13 on a family voyage to Fiji. He has a bit to learn yet, though Haslar says that Tuke will pick things up fast. 'After half an hour on the helm, he was at ease - just a natural.'
It helps that the RP42 has a lot more in common with a skiff than your regular 40-foot cruiser/racer.
SAILING - Rolex Sydney to Hobart 2012 - 15/12/2012 photo credit: Andrea Francolini left: Ray Haslar owner of RIKKI from New Zealand
'The trip over was really good,' Tuke says, 'The principles are the same (as the 49ers). Rikki is a very nice boat to drive. We’ve got a lot more training to do in Sydney, but I’m really looking forward to the race. I’ll be trimming and steering,' said Tuke, who crewed Peter Burling to their silver medal in London.
Despite the fact that only two of his crew have Hobart experience, Haslar is confident that he has a real shot at winning the race.
Rikki was launched last year as a beamy reaching and running boat in the style of the IRC40 Chutzpah and the Ker40 AFR Midnight Rambler, though in practice she did not turn out to be quite as fast downwind as expected.
'We were half a knot slower than the projections, so I have put on a 30 square metre larger genoa. It costs us 50 seconds an hour in our rating, but the extra speed more than makes up for it,' Haslar maintains.
Ironically, the downwind disappointment may work to Rikki’s advantage in the long race to Hobart. 'She turned out to be much better upwind than we expected - very, very good,' Haslar said.
A good all round boat, her New Zealand feels, for a race that more often than not is 50 percent uphill.
Haslar is very happy with Rikki, his fourth boat. 'I really enjoyed the whole project. Sitting down with the designers, going through what we wanted to do with the boat. Why we wanted this at the expense of that. I designed the layout and the interior, so a lot of this is my boat. Reichel/Pugh put a shell around it,' he said.
Rikki won her first big ocean race, the 250 nautical mile (Not) Round White Island Race of 2011, and placed second on IRC in this year’s Auckland to Noumea race.
Haslar is confident she can beat the local speedsters on the long track. 'We owe AFR Midnight Rambler three minutes per hour. You can’t beat that round the buoys, but by the time those Ker40s are loaded up for a long race, they sit lower and are not as fast,' he reckons.
He also knows what it’s like to win a Hobart, being part of the Pathfinder crew when she won in 1971. 'Everything we touched turned to gold. We got a good westerly, then a nor’ westerly across Bass Strait - and we ran down all the boats that had been parked off the Tasmanian coast,' Haslar recalled.
So he knows that luck is a fortune in this race too. Yet he says that New Zealand sailors have to come over here, despite the cost and effort.
'Bringing a boat here is a very big deal. It cost us $60,000 in insurance just to get here; you’ve really got to want to do it,' Haslar says. 'We started getting all the ducks in a row in September.
'It is a challenge - but this is my aim in life. This is my last racing yacht; I’m 69, so I want to do as much as I can. I’ve got five years more at this level, maybe.
'It’s fine to do well where you are, but you’ve got to do well in a bigger pond to see just how good you are,' he said.
A Rolex gold watch may not have the same lustre of Olympic gold, but it will be more than enough for Ray Haslar, Blair Tuke and the rest of the Kerikeri Yacht Club. They will have to climb over a few hundred Australian sailors to get it, though.
Tuke wants that Olympic gold, too, in 2016. He will have to climb over another two Australians, Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, to get that.