In the world of professional sport we are well used to the return to competition of numerous personalities who have previously ‘retired’ in a fanfare of farewells and accolades from their colleagues.
Jim and Mary Holley, the last hoorah in Hobart - Rolex Sydney Hobart Race 2012
So why should the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Race Yacht Race be any different?
Well in truth it’s not. There has been no shortage of skippers and crew who after many years of pulling on their sea boots on Boxing Day have declared it’s time to consign their sailing gear to the wardrobe and spend time with their families during the festive season; only to appear on the start line rather sheepishly the following Boxing Day, or at best after a respectable break of a year or at most two.
There are of course those who will give no hint that they are retiring; one year they will simply not show up. The legendary Tony ‘Glarke’ Cable - founder of the famous QLD (Quiet Little Drink) – who has just completed an astonishing 47 races to Hobart is probably one such. He doesn’t believe in records. When asked in an interview by the Hobart Mercury yesterday if he thought he would get to 50 races he simply said
'It's not a goal. If you get to 50, someone will ask you to do 55, it's just relentless. It becomes crazy after a while. You wouldn't want to do a Hobart race to win any sort of a record, that's for sure.'
But as to whether he would go to 50, Cable was sensibly evasive,
'It's a possibility I could do it,' he said.
To be fair it would be very hard to give away such a compelling challenge, particularly when it’s been all you’ve known of the days after Christmas Day over so many years.
'Perhaps I’ve got one more in me’’ is an understandable reaction to a year pondering the realities of retirement from the great race.
So it’s no surprise that there are as many skeptics amongst fellow competitors about ‘last Hobarts’ as there is amongst the media that report on the race.
…..just on the off-chance that at least some of this year’s race veterans that have either hinted at or openly declared that the 2012 race would be their last really mean what they say, it would be remiss to pass up the opportunity of recognising their considerable contributions to the Sydney to Hobart race scene, much less their obvious talent and extraordinary tenacity.
So let’s start with those that I believe will definitely not be seen casting off their lines at 11.30 am at the CYCA on December 26th 2013.
Flying way below the media radar on the Sydney to Hobart race scene over many years are two of the most likeable and experienced offshore racing sailors you will ever have the pleasure to meet. Between them Jim and Mary Holley have raced to Hobart 41 times (Jim 25 times and Mary 16), the last 15 times in consecutive years aboard their bulletproof and impeccably prepared IOR Farr 40, Aurora.
This is no cruising couple either; they take their racing seriously and have had their share of success on this race particularly in heavy weather, coming second in their division in the storm ravaged 1998 and third in their division the following year.
Charming and utterly unassuming, Jim and Mary Holley have taken many young budding sailors from their home club of Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club to Hobart over the years, providing opportunities to hone their offshore skills, but always with an eye to sound seamanship; a couple of years back Jim, who has an outstanding record in finishing this race in even the toughest years, observed drily and with a large smile,
'When I’m down below and I hear the young guns on deck wahooing, I know its time to get up there and take down some sail!'
Mary too is the consummate offshore sailor and navigator, receiving the prestigious Rani trophy last yearfor 'Outstanding Seamanship' after assisting the Radio Relay Vessel, JBW, in the all-important radio skeds during the race.
Even yesterday as her family (including a brand new grandchild) and large contingent of friends were there to greet her and Jim as they tied up Aurora in Hobart for the last time, she was to be seen checking the log on the deck instruments to close out their final race before she would let herself savour the moment.
I, for one, will miss the regular annual catch up and stories shared with two of this race’s best.
Next up Stephen Ainsworth, who has put up his all-conquering Reichel Pugh 63 Loki for sale and has announced that he is retiring from offshore racing, effective the end of this year’s race to Hobart; or at least for now, as he alluded to in an interview with The Australian,
'I haven't abandoned sailing but I don't know how long the break will last,' he said. 'I haven't had some major transformation, it's just a feeling that's been growing for a while . . . I feel like I've done whatever I hoped to do in sailing and I've had a huge amount of success.'
Ainsworth has indeed achieved just about everything that he, his crew and boat could possibly want for, both here and overseas; although in the latter case at some price, having to abandon his former yacht of the same name when she lost her rudder in a huge storm– the boat was ultimately wrecked - in the 2007 Middle Sea Race in the Mediterranean.
Ainsworth shared the 2011 Ocean Racer of the Year Award with Geoff Boettcher (who won the Hobart in 2010), after being crowned the 2010 Audi IRC Australian champion, while Loki has broken numerous offshore race records. Last year Ainsworth achieved one of his last outstanding offshore goals by getting both hands on the Tattersall’s Cup for the overall handicap winner of the Sydney Hobart race.
Ainsworth is a keen road cyclist and has declared that he wants to focus on conquering a few mountains in Europe on two wheels next up,
'The insurance bill for Loki is $40,000 a year and for that I can buy three or four beautiful bikes’' joked Ainsworth in confirming he’s hanging up the sailing gear for now.
Word has it that his wife does not believe for one moment that we have seen the last of her husband on the water!
So to another successful campaigner, this time from Victoria. In over thirty years of racing to Hobart Bruce Taylor has achieved an extraordinary ten division wins with his various yachts named Chutzpah, run second and third on overall handicap and yet never managed to put the Tattersall’s Cup in his trophy cabinet.
Bruce is absolutely the go-to man for pre and post race analysis, sharing his experience and judgement freely and always with a healthy dose of dry humour (a useful trait in an orthodontist one imagines) and a stoic resignation that the wind gods simply don’t deal in just outcomes.
He oft quotes the phrase ‘you make your own luck’ although it’s hard to see where years of hard work, experience and endeavour have delivered what most of his fellow sailors would consider a long overdue overall handicap win in this race.
Before this year’s race Taylor had hinted that this might be his last race to Hobart and when asked yesterday if he would be back next year - as he wearily tied up Chutzpah on King’s Wharf in Hobart after another frustrating race - the answer seemed to confirm his pre race hints.
'Probably not unless this lot really want to put something together' said Taylor with a resigned smile, referring to his experienced crew, who include Taylor’s son Drew amongst their number and who reached Hobart on his 20th race.
It’s hard to believe that the tenacious Taylor will really settle for being the Ken Rosewall of this classic race and after all it was he who when asked in Hobart one year whether he would return the following year after another gruelling and cruel race full of holes (‘we found them all’) quipped,
'Right now not a chance, but come and ask me again later this evening when I’ve had a drink or two!'
Then there are those that have the race on their must-do list as a one-off, and few could be more happy for Warwick Sherman in that regard. After a long wrestle with non Hodgkins lymphoma Sherman has managed to seize the day whilst in remission and not only completed his first race to Hobart as skipper of Occasional Coarse Language Too, but impressively also won the highly competitive IRC Division 2 on handicap.
Asked in Hobart if he'd return for another tilt at the race an exhausted but contented Sherman was concise in his response,
'Nope, first one last one!'
At the other end of the race tally comes word as this is written of the retirement from ocean racing of 'Robbo' Robertson, owner and skipper of Lunchtime Legend. Robertson, for whom the word 'legendary' is an accepted prefix in the yachting fraternity, has just completed his 11th race to Hobart, rounding out his ocean racing portfolio with a win in Division 3.
'I'm ecstatic to come away with the divisional win in my final race' said Robbo, adding 'The crew did a great job and they are elated with our win.'
There are of course many multi-Hobart veterans who have quietly called it a day this year with little or no fuss, simply accepting the recognition and admiration of their family, friends and fellow crew members; but my final note is for one of the race’s real champions.
David Pescud, the skipper of Sailors with Disabilities has sailed to Hobart 21 times (or so the records say, although he himself insists it’s only 19!), but he first involved disabled sailors in this race back in 1994, when he heard a radio interview with a young paraplegic who said he wanted to race to Hobart. In the intervening years Pescud has taken numerous sailors with disabilities to Hobart and subsequently inspired some of their number to extraordinary feats.
Vinnie Lauwers is an Australian double amputee who sailed with Pescud in the late 1990s and subsequently went on to become the first disabled person to sail around the world non stop and unassisted in 2000. This year The Sailors with Disabilities crew included Paralympic sailor Liesl Tesch, who was introduced to competitive sailing when she joined Pescud in the 2009 race to Hobart. Tesch went on to win a gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympics with sailing partner Daniel Fitzgibbon.
Both Tesch and Lauwers represent the very thing that Pescud says we all need to understand about people with disabilities,
'People are people first and your disability is either part of your life; it owns you or you own it. The guys I sail with, they own their disability and I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve sailed with some of the most amazing people.'
It was these very qualities that helped Sailors With Disabilities not only complete the rugged 1998 race but most impressively to win the PHS Division that year.
Outwardly gruff at times, straight talking and with a no-nonsense personality Pescud is evidently a man with large heart. But with a farm that he and his wife manage needing more of his time and with a desire to focus on children with dyslexia (from which Pescud suffers) he has declared that his days as an ocean racing skipper are now over.
'Everything has to evolve' said Pescud in Hobart yesterday, 'it’s time for somebody else to take on the mantle ……..and this seems to me to be the appropriate time. I’ll still be involved with Sailors with Disabilities of course but no longer in my current role' Pescud added.
So there you have it, some fine sailors whom we may perhaps not see again amongst the crews and boats turning right at the Heads on Boxing Day in future years.
But then again, ‘never say never’ seems to be a commonly quoted preface to any announcements of retirements from this race.
The last word on this topic goes to one of the race veterans who has never mentioned retirement and who understands the siren call of this compelling challenge as well as any.
As I was hurrying down to Kings Wharf to greet the Holley’s at the end of their swansong race I passed Roger Hickman who asked who I was interviewing,
'Jim and Mary Holley' I replied over my shoulder 'it’s their last race', I added, heading out of earshot.
Hickman laughed and shouted down the wharf,
'It won’t happen you know. Tell them Hicko says we’ll see them down here again next year!'