by John Curnow
Earlier today, Grant Wharington and his Wild Thing crew had turned off their mobiles to conduct their pre-race briefing in silence. Here they were in familiar territory, with a lot of the old crew, a new aft section on the boat and a sail wardrobe that was virtually straight from the loft.
WILD THING, Rolex Sydney Hobart start - Rolex Sydney Hobart 2010
On Wednesday, they had lodged their documentation regarding the now elapsed American Bureau of Shipping guidelines, as pertains to the design and construction of the 100 foot super maxi. At that time, they allege they had been told that they were cleared for racing, so it is no wonder that at around 0900hrs this morning they thought they were off to Hobart once more.
In the case of ‘Wharro’, as he is best known, the 68th edition of the grand blue water classic was to be his 25th. For many of the crew, it would be into the middle teens, like Peter Cosman with 13 and Peter Davis with 17, already.
An obviously devestated Wharington emerged from the Sailing Office inside the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) at about 1145hrs AEDT. The majority of the crew were also outside, in a sign of solidarity. His first comments were clearly taking aim at the Race Committee and Chairman, Tim Cox, in particular, 'We are absolutely devastated to be told at the eleventh hour that we are unable to race to Hobart.
‘Would you believe that we have been offered the ability to sail down the course and participate in the radio skeds and leave the tracker on, which is an insult!’
‘We are a bit stuck for words as to why this situation has happened. We have provided the documentation - I have got it in my hand. We were given approval on Wednesday saying that we were able to go, then it’s subsequently withdrawn, so we are obviously devastated by the news’, added Wharington.
Asked if he still maintains that the documentation was up to scratch, Wharington replied very emphatically,
‘Absolutely.’ As to where the miscommunication came from, Wharington added, ‘I think it is all in the wording. The requirement is that the design has to be signed off by a naval architect. The original design was done by a (now retired) Melbourne engineer (in 2005) and he claims to have not done the final design, so this is why we engaged a naval architect (Fred Barrett) to actually provide a report on the boat, which says that it was assessed and approved and the requirement under the race rules is that the design has to be done accordance with the American Bureau of Shipping Guidelines.’
In essence, what this may well boil down to is that as Wild Thing’s designer is now just short of 80 years of age and in all probability, is likely to be without further indemnity insurance, which is why he simply cannot sign off on his own work, whether he wanted to or not.
Wild Thing was launched in 2003 was well and truly a sparkle in the eye back around 2001. What this means is that Wild Thing, like all the maxis, is not able to comply with the more recent ISO Cat A standards and so reverts to a system that was effectively disbanded in 1998, but has not been replaced yet, for a number of reasons.
Additionally, as Wharington and a team of his built and then ‘sewed on’ the new aft section in a shed on the Gold Coast in Queensland, he is effectively just the same as an owner/builder of a house and cannot comment on the structure legally, despite it being done to standards laid out in the design.
In this overall cost saving approach, Fred Barrett was then engaged to comment, based on review, which is what he has done and said is above minimum standards.
Wharington continued ‘The wording here on this report says quite simply, that the information provided in the assessment undertaken, (as per) that the modification falls within the minimum scope of the ABS guide.
'The wording is pretty simple and clear in our opinion, in so far that it falls within the guide. It doesn’t pull up short of saying it is designed in accordance with the guide. It is all in the words, so I am not quite sure where they are coming from. I am dumbfounded’, Wharro added.
‘The CYCA’s Commodore (Howard Piggott) denied me to opportunity to appear at the media conference earlier, which I understand was at 10 o’clock this morning. I wasn’t invited, but we invited him to come here now, to join us, but he is elsewhere.
'It’s pretty disappointing for our entire team, who have worked so hard to get this incredible boat to the position it is in now.’
‘I don’t know whether there is any kind of conspiracy going on, but unfortunately I think this particular Race Committee Chairman seems to be a serial offender of trying to get big boats out of the race. He did it to Loyal last year. He did it to Wild Oats XI two years ago and we’re the next one in line. We are incredibly disappointed’, said an emotional Wharington.
Wharington continued ‘I think they are trying to go back 65 years or whenever the race started. Back to when it was just a cruising company to Hobart. Clearly we are not here for a cruise. We are out to race against everybody else and we have got a brand new boat, brand new equipment and brand new sails.
Why would we want In terms of what he thought of the Race Committee’s invitation to sail with the fleet, to go out there and cruise along, potentially damaging sails and equipment, to only go through the pain and suffering of watching everybody else get a result at the other end, when we can’t? Very disappointing.’
‘Yes I think it is the biggest setback I’ve ever had in the race, actually. We have been able to start and not finish several times and also to be not allowed into the exclusion zone. You might recall a couple of years ago we were held up until our insurance documents were signed off and that eventually happened, then we were allowed to enter the exclusion zone.’
‘We are told right at the moment that we can’t enter the exclusion zone, even though they are offering that we can do the trip to Hobart and keep the tracker on. It is nonsensical to me, as are a lot of things with this situation’, stated Wharington.
Commenting on the systems and procedure surrounding an event like this, Wharington said, ‘Obviously the documentation was supposed to be in by November 1. We kept getting reminded of that, but on that date the boat was still in the shed (and would be for a while to come).
There are a lot of boats that don’t have their documentation in until the end and unfortunately we are in that position again this year, but I think in future there needs to be far more written documentation backwards and forwards, because we hear all of this to-ing and fro-ing from the Principal Race Officer (PRO), calling people on the phone saying you need to do this or you need to do that.’
‘Everything needs to be done differently in the future, in writing, with boxes ticked.
'It is a tough game and I guess some part of it makes it worth doing, but right at the moment I am struggling to find that position.’
Given that the last two years have had similar Race Committee intervention scenarios pan out, albeit at the end of the race rather than the beginning, Wharington was asked about recourse and further action, saying, ‘The PRO has the right to reject any entry, so I am not sure whether that would work. We are going to look at our actions, but clearly we feel like we have been targeted this time.’
Indeed there is an emotional cost with an outcome like this, but what of the financial cost, which is said to be around AU$1.5m?
‘It is a massive set back to us, paying for this event, but going forward we have got a huge deal for the next three years and am looking forward to that. Obviously for me it is my 25th Hobart race, but for others there are 15th and 16th and 20th. We just need to go back and regroup and look forward to the next adventure.’
To solve this, it is likely that some more expense will be involved for Wharington to get core samples taken and analysed to prove beyond question that the vessel is capable, safe and fit for purpose, as per her design. This will also take time.
As it is potentially unlikely that anyone else on the Eastern seaboard will accept an entry until this occurs, you get the feeling that this really is Wharington’s next course of action.
It is also a shame if its true that Wild Thing team was told that their documentation was acceptable, only to be ever so painfully extracted three days after receiving the blessing of the sailing office.
Had the problem been revealed on the Wednesday, there may have been time to address the Race Committee’s concerns, so one can understand the pain at being yanked off at the eleventh hour.
To avoid it in the future, you could think Wharington is correct in asking for real stages to be signed off and cleared in one go, without an overarching hand of doom looming over you like the Grim Reaper's sickle.
In terms of what was going to happen over the next couple of hours, Wharro smiled and said, ‘I don’t know. We might have to turn the CYCA to the Customs House!’ (Paying homage to that time honoured tradition of taking over Hobart’s favourite dockside watering hole each year).