by Jim Gale
Back in 2005, the newest, flashiest, all-singing-all-dancing super-yacht Wild Oats XI won the CYCA's Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race overall after smashing the race record in a triumph of carbon fibre, canting keels and state of the art boat design and engineering – but one year on, things changed dramatically.
Left: Lindsay May (navigator on Love & War) and Simon Kurts (owner of Love & War)
In 2006, Australian yachting’s ultimate prize, the Tattersall’s Cup, was seized by a 33 year old wooden boat in an uphill, somewhat slow motion smash-and-grab raid, aided and abetted by a mystery four knot southerly current that nobody in the rest of the fleet had ever suspected.
Love & War had won the CYCA’s race in 1974 and 1978. Now, almost 30 years later, the beautiful Oregon and Maple S&S 47 had cemented her place as one of Australia’s truly great ocean racing thoroughbreds. At her helm (with the blessing of the yacht’s owner Simon Kurts) was the boat’s navigator, Lindsay May.
Such is ocean racing.
On Boxing Day Love & War will again carry May, one of Australia’s foremost navigators, down Sydney Harbour and out into the rigours of the NSW south coast and the big seas of Bass Strait. It will be his 40th Hobart start and he will be back navigating, while Simon Kurts will be back at the helm.
Curiously, of those 39 starts so far, the highlight for May is not 2006, but a race he did not finish. The horrendous 1993 race, 'when we rescued John Quinn.' Just 38 of 104 starters made it to Hobart.
Sailing on Atara that year, Mays’s race was already over, Atara’s mast broken when she was rolled by a freak wave, when they heard on the radio that John Quinn was lost at sea.
'We were on our way home when we heard that Quinn had been washed off his yacht, Mem, after the stitching on his safety harness came apart when the boat was hit by a huge wave. We went back to help look for him and nearly ran over him,' May remembered.
The rescue of John Quinn was one of those inexplicable miracles. By all rights, in the terrible conditions that night he should have been a goner.
'He saw us - we didn’t see him. He had no light; there were no strobes and personal EPIRBS in those days. He was just a dark blob in the grey ocean,' May recalled.
A fast current had swept Quinn miles from where he’d first gone over, and where his mates on Mem were desperately looking for him. Yet somehow, amid the shrill roar of wind and waves, a crew member on the tanker Ampol Sorrel had heard his call for help and spotted him in its searchlight.
'We heard on the radio that the tanker Ampol Sorrel had seen him in its searchlight, but couldn’t retrieve him, so we just headed for the tankers lights.
'We had a lot of delamination where the broken mast had smashed against Atara’s side. When we pulled John Quinn out of the water, we asked him if he had seen how bad the damage was. I’ll never forget his reply. ‘When the ambulance arrives you don’t notice the condition of the duco,’' May said.
By May’s count, he has sailed in 20 different boats for 17 different owners. Many became good friends, especially the late Peter Kurts, the original owner of Love & War, and Peter’s son Simon, who was left the boat when his father died in January 2005 as his beloved yacht was sailing through Sydney Heads on its return from Hobart.
Yet, the yacht that completely won May’s heart was Brindabella, George Snow’s lovely 80 foot maxi. May raced her eight times with Snow, and once with her subsequent owner, Jim Cooney.
'She is a great boat; very pretty and she’s performed really well over many years. Line honours in 1997, second four times, and second overall in ‘99, the year Yendys won.
LOVE and WAR Lindsay May navigator Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2009
'George was a fabulous owner, a very competent leader, but he’s also able to get everyone to have a lot of fun,' May says. 'It was like a football club’s trip away; you work hard but lots of laughs.'
Snow was on Love & War (according to Snow, he was the cook), in 2006. Indeed most of the crew that year were ex-Brindabellians, and George’s son Richard will be aboard for this year’s race.
Surprisingly, May came to sailing quite late in life, already a young man. He can remember the day that he got hooked.
'I was a competitive surf lifesaver and swimmer when a member of RANSA asked me if I’d like to come sailing on his Endeavour 24; and it was the noise of the water on the hull as we glided down the harbour,' May recollected.
A few months later, Des Kelly, another RANSA member, invited May on a voyage to New Zealand. 'If I knew then what I know today, I would never have gone,' he says. 'It was an old wooden boat and Des was the only person with any offshore experience. We got hammered for three days.'
From that experience, though, came May’s first Hobart ride, in 1973. In 1975 he was so desperate for another that he declared: 'I’ll even go as navigator,' and the die was cast.
'The ‘75 was a very fast race, but the second half was in heavy fog,' he said There were no satnavs or GPS then, just dead reckoning between sun and star sights taken when you could on a sextant from a rolling, bucking deck.
'No-one could get a sun-sight because of the fog, and their dead reckoning was out because the logs were under-reading when the boats surfed down waves. A lot of boats completely missed Tasman Island and ended up having to backtrack 30 odd miles,' May said.
'I got one sight in and worked out we were 40 miles south of our dead reckoning position. I didn’t believe it, so I got out the old RDF (radio direction finder) and lined up Hobart’s radio stations.
'The RDF put us 40 miles south of where I thought I was too, so I said to the skipper, ‘Tasman Island must be just over there’. He said, ‘We’d better gybe then’, and sure enough, we found Tasman Island three miles astern.
'Prior to ‘83, when satnav was introduced, the ability to know where you were within a few miles was a big plus.' May’s name as a navigator was on a roll.
It was his navigational diligence that triumphed, too, in 2006. 'I’m a great user of current. It doesn’t matter so much on modern high speed boats, but on slower boats that do maybe eight knots, a few knots of current can up your speed by 50%.
'The first thing I do is plot where the current is on a paper chart and work out whether it is worthwhile. We got four knots of current, while boats a few miles inshore of us were only getting two. We got 50 miles for nothing,' the navigator told.
'Peter Kurts was a great believer in sailing the making leg; the route that points most directly towards Hobart. I do too - provided it doesn’t force you onto the western side of the course close to Tasmania’s coast - the light south-easters there kill you.'
The Sydney yachtsman loves the new technology available to navigators these days, and the fact that you can see on your laptop where everyone else is and what they are up to.
'It is so much more exciting,' reveals May, who likes the dash of the modern ocean racing yachts too, such as the TP52, Strewth, which he navigated to Hobart last year. 'When you’re doing mid 20’s (knots), covering so many miles - I’ll miss that - Love & War is flat out doing eight.
'There’s not much exhilaration on Love & War – just fright now and then,' admits May, who describes himself as very competitive. 'And you need to be at this level. It doesn’t matter if you are on a gun boat as long as you are on a boat that has a chance.
'There are some boats that will never win,' he maintains. 'They are not going flat out 24 hours a day, but if you can do that, you can win this race.'
Hobart races beyond 40, May says, 'As long as I can find someone who will offer me a position I will keep doing the Hobart. While I’m healthy why would I stop?
'I just can’t contemplate not going.'
Rolex Sydney Hobart website