For as long as she can remember, young Tasmanian Laura Roper has watched the spectacular Rolex Sydney Hobart finish, soaking up the excitement of Australia’s preeminent yachting event as the fleet docked in Hobart and the weary sailors finally climbed out of their pungent wet weather gear.
Natelle Two, the Roper family boat.
This year Laura, 22, will be joining the 67th race fleet at the helm of the family boat, Natelle Two.
'Every day as I walk down the hill to work looking out over the finish line off Battery Point, I get a little bit more excited!' she said.
'I’ve wanted to do the Rolex Sydney Hobart for as long as I can remember, but due to a number of reasons, including being too young, I haven’t had an opportunity to compete....until now.'
A solid Peterson 41 two tonner, Natelle Two has been in the family since 1990, when Laura was just one. With their three children in tow, the Roper family enjoyed many trips around the Derwent River and stunning cruising grounds of the D'Entrecasteaux channel.
At age seven Laura started racing Sabots at the Derwent Sailing Squadron, eventually moving into ocean racing. While the Rolex Sydney Hobart will be her biggest offshore challenge, she’s no novice with a Launceston to Hobart race, delivery to Sydney and a Maria Island race under her sailing belt.
Natelle Two was built in Auckland, New Zealand, from GPR foam sandwich and launched in 1975. The boat’s last Rolex Sydney Hobart was the 50th anniversary race in 1994 and Laura recalls jealously farewelling her dad and two brothers, who were eight and 11 at the time, while she 'unfortunately had to stay home with mum' at the tender age of five.
An minimum age limit of 18 was introduced by race organiser, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, following the tragic 1998 Sydney Hobart and Laura had to bide her time, like many teenagers rearing to go, until she became eligible to participate in one of the world’s most challenging ocean races.
'I decided on the sixth of January this year that the only way I was going to be able to take part was by taking the family yacht myself. It was the first day I’d seen dad after the King of the Derwent race; I’d had some thinking time and had decided that I wanted this year to be my year.
'It will be a family affair with my dad Glenn and eldest brother Ashley both coming along for the ride. I will be in charge as skipper, but I will also have the help of my dad and my fantastic crew, however I plan to make decisions to the best of my ability and knowledge.'
Laura will use the opportunity to raise awareness of the A 21 campaign www.thea21campaign.org, a non profit organisation committed to countering human injustice, particularly human trafficking.
'Being female and within the age group that is most commonly targeted by traffickers, I had no hesitation becoming involved with the A 21 campaign and helping to promote this cause. It’s not just happening overseas, it’s also happening in Australia and I am glad to be able to help these young women.
'We will be doing the qualifying Maria Island race this November, but not with the entire crew, as Ashley lives in Kalgoorlie and another crew member lives in England,' added the Royal Hobart Hospital nurse.
'We have done a lot of work to Natelle to get her up to scratch and to meet the safety regulations. It’s been a lot of hard work....every weekend for dad and I. We are buying some new sails and the interior has been completely repainted - all 41 foot! Now the boat’s race ready, we are looking for companies to support our entry.
'Dad and I will be leaving Hobart bound for Sydney on the 14th of December in order to complete Natelle’s safety inspection at the CYCA. I can’t wait.'
This year will be Natelle Two’s lucky 13th Rolex Sydney Hobart, the same number for owner Glenn Roper and crewman Lloyd Griffiths. First timers Laura and 29 year-old Ambi Ford will be leaning on the more experienced on the boat, but also trusting their intuition with bucket loads of Generation Y self confidence.
As for race ambitions, the Ropers are hoping for a more traditional southerly slog, conditions better suited to the pre-carbon older and heavier-built fibreglass boats.
'Natelle is often discounted as a contender due to her age, but with a bit of knowledge and the right wind she often performs well,' adds Laura.
So far, six of the 50 applications for entry received by race organisers have come from Tasmania, the largest entry from the finishing state in recent years.
Laura Roper is one of three women skippers so far nominated for this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart. Eighteen year-old solo round the world sailor Jessica Watson will be at the helm of the Sydney 38 Ella Bache – Another Challenge and Stephane Howarth will skipper a second Sydney 38, Mille Sabords.
The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2011 Applications for Entry and Notice of Race are online at: http://rolexsydneyhobart.com/editorial.asp?key=1711
By Lisa Ratcliff, RSH media team