It’s hard to imagine how Hobart was ever discovered by sea, really.
Pretty Fly III cresting the big seas passing Tasman Island - 2013 Rolex Sydney Hobart
There are two dimensions to the city’s sea defences – neither has anything to do with the military - that have seemed to make Hobart an elusive chimera to many a seafarer over the decades and centuries.
None more so than for the weary Sydney Hobart crew, almost within spitting distance of a shower and a few bevvies.
The first of course is when the Derwent River pulls the shutters down for the night, with a very clear message for anyone presuming to pass the Iron Pot after 6pm;
'Thanks for your interest, but we’re closed for the day. We resume business at 9am tomorrow, please come back then. Good night.'
This capricious phenomenon has been the bane of many a skipper who has bemoaned being 'robbed of certain victory', just 11 miles short of Hobart.
But the second defence is perhaps the most cruel torment for those unfortunate enough to be caught in a full-blown gale off Tasmania’s south east coast, just trying to get into the aptly named Storm Bay.
Rounding Tasman Island and Cape Raoull in a southwesterly gale, on an ebb tide is a form of almost interminable torture (I still twitch when I recall the experience!).
A quick look at Yacht Tracker on Sunday morning revealed how many crew on a number of yachts had been experiencing their own form of that particular type of hell for endless hours off Tasman Island, as a southwest gale produced gusts in excess of 50 knots and nasty seas to match.
The course of each yacht’s track looked something akin to an Etch-A-Sketch scribble from a child who hasn’t quite mastered drawing diagonals.
Course Made Good? Forget it! In these conditions you are entirely at the mercy of sea and wind, condemned to sail backwards and forwards on what look like long beam reaches on the Tracker, but are actually a series of fruitless northwest/southeast tacks.
So seemingly inexplicable is this endless switchback that one colleague in the media centre said it was evident that these yachts were simply standing by to assist the dismasted Wedgetail, if needed.
Not so, as Brindabella’s navigator will attest.
Lindsay May is one of Australia’s most experienced ocean racing navigators and has also won this race as skipper in 2006 with the classic timber yacht Love and War, itself a three-times winner.
Lindsay May in Hobart yesterday
But despite all that experience – and, one imagines, an endless reserve of patience and equanimity – he and his crew were no less subject to the whims of this phenomenon on Sunday.
'A number of people have commended us for spending so many hours out there in such conditions, sailing back and forth to stand by Wedgetail' said May when I met him on the dock yesterday.
'In truth that wasn’t the reason for our track, even though we offered our assistance several times via through the Radio Relay Vessel. It would have been great to have counted it as redress' he added with a wry smile, 'but no, we were simply struggling to make ground.'
Tracks of Typical Tasman Torment. (Original Image Source: Google and Yacht Tracker)
'It’s the combined effects of wind direction, wind strengths, sea state and current that create the problem. That combination means that you end up so heavily reefed down that you are simply going sideways, not forward; it’s all just leeway,' explains May.
'It reminds you of the days of the clipper ships caught out in a gale on a lee shore' he adds 'desperately trying to tack out of trouble, but simply going backwards and forwards along the same track before inevitably being washed onto the rocks,' May adds ominously.
Worse still, the wind direction would appear to tease you time and again in these gales. BoM observations from Tasman Island for Sunday morning show the wind was veering from SW to W ('now we’re getting somewhere') and even NNW ('you beauty, we’ve cracked it') before backing to W and then SW again ('you’ve got to be kidding!'); and it repeated that performance roughly every 10-30 minutes or so.
Wild Thing’s skipper Grant Wharington confirms the nature of the problem when trying to decide what set up is needed to tackle this torment,
'Unless you have a fair bit of mainsail up, you just don’t get the drive you need to work around the waves, so the bow just gets washed away on each wave that breaks. But, too much mainsail and you are over-pressed in the gusts which in 40 knots of wind can easily exceed 60 knots.'
Hobson’s choice! But interestingly there has been much talk amongst the skippers I’ve spoken to over the last few days about the merits of the third reef; some have one, some don’t, but a number suggest that it’s more effective and productive in these conditions than a storm trysail (and for those who want the definitive word on that, read Skip Novak’s excellent article in the December edition of Yachting World – he likes four reefs!).
But I digress.
Eventually, the weather gods grant just enough latitude for you to sneak around Cape Raoull, crack sheets, breathe a sigh of relief and bounce off across Storm Bay.
God knows, after all of that, you only hope that you’re not going to be delivered a one-two knock out at the top of the Derwent River.
Small wonder that the cannons on Hobart’s Battery Point were never used in anger!