Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race - Honouring one of the greats

Trygve Halvorsen prepares to start the 69th Rolex Sydney Hobart
John Markos
This year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race marks an extraordinary anniversary - 50 years ago Trygve and Magnus Halvorsen sailed their 39 foot timber, double ended Freya to victory in the 1963 race - then they did it again, in 1964, and again in 1965.

Freya had won overall an unprecedented three Hobarts in a row. No other yacht has ever done that. She became a household name across the country, and remains so across the ocean racing world even today for that matter.

Trygve Halvorsen is 93 now. To honour Freya’s achievements a half century ago, Halvorsen fired the starting gun for the 2013 race. When he speaks of Freya, you can hear the pride and love he holds for that old timber boat in his voice.

'Freya was designed as a fast cruising boat. All boats were in those days,' he says. 'She just happened to be very fast.

'She was a development of Solveig and Anitra,' with which he and Magnus had won the Hobart in in 1954 and 1957.

'Anitra should have won two races,' Halvorsen says, 'but a mistake was made in the handicap calculations. It should have been two wins and two second places from four starts.'

Two things really stand out when you look at drawings of Freya: her long flat keel with a vertical rudder hanging at the end, and her bow shaped stern where a transom would normally be.

'Solveig and Anitra were the first two boats to have spade rudders,' Halvorsen recalls, 'and Freya was originally designed the same way, but when Magnus got back from the America’s Cup he had had enough racing and wanted to go cruising so he asked me to put a long keel on her.

'As for being double ended, one reason was our Scandinavian origins and the second was I was always told you could never get a double ender to sail fast and I wanted the challenge.

'Our boats were never designed to a rule. Our only thought was to build a sea kindly boat that sailed well. No measurements were done until the official measurer calculated our handicap. We just took the rules as they came.'

From the outset it was clear that Freya was a boat that could be driven hard. 'She was a boat you could push,' Trygve says proudly. She was a two finger job to steer in any weather; beautifully balanced.'

And push her they did. Freya averaged over eight knots for the whole length of the race, which theoretically a 39 foot displacement boat could not do. They drove her down waves as fast as they could when others might ease up.

She was always under control - she never broached - and her crew never let up, never relaxed. 'We were fit and very determined. We always changed sails when required, at any time day or night.

'We took Joe Pearce, a sail maker with us on the third trip, and he couldn’t believe we would change headsails within sight of the finish line to save a couple of minutes.'

They were famous for driving Freya as hard at night as during the day. Other boats would be close as they sailed into the evening, only to find the next morning that Freya was out of sight.

'I loved night sailing,' Halvorsen says. 'There’s no glare; you just watch the boat go through the waves. A lot of crews, they’d stay up on deck and enjoy the sun after their watch but the sun takes your energy out of you.

'Our rule was you go below and sleep when you’re off watch. We’d get to Hobart fitter than when we left. The race is won at night.'

Curiously, Trygve’s association with the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the home of the Rolex Sydney Hobart, came about because the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club banned him as a professional. He is still not sure why.

'My father was a member, so were my older brothers, but they wouldn’t have me.'

Whatever the reason, the marriage of Trygve Halvorsen and the CYCA was made in heaven. He won the first trophy the Club ever presented, and helped ready the fleet for the first Hobart race.

'The boat we had, Entrerprise, didn’t have a self-draining cockpit, so didn’t qualify. Our first race was in 1946,' he recalls. Yachtsmen didn’t have much money in those days so we never charged the visiting boats we worked on when they arrived, only for what we had to buy in for them.'

Halvorsen was involved in organizing the first Australian team to compete in the Admiral’s Cup in Britain, and Gretel, Australia’s first America’s Cup challenger, was built in the Halvorsen yard. 'I was one of Gretel’s three helmsmen,' he says proudly.

'Sir Frank Packer would only allow Jock Sturrock, Archie Robertson and myself to drive her. I was given a few hats in that campaign. I was House Captain and in charge of maintenance too.'

The one thing he didn’t do, though, was much cruising in Freya. After three wins in three outings, Trygve retired the boat from the Hobart race when rival yachtsmen complained that she was too good.

'After the third win, a few owners asked us to drop out. One of them said ‘You’ve had your whack’. And anyway, I wanted to spend a bit more time with my daughters,' Trygve says.

Magnus sailed Freya to America, where she was eventually sold. 'Freya is still afloat in the West Indies,' Trygve says.

'She was wrecked and under water for 10 days, but the then owner bought her back from the insurance company and flew a boat builder out from America to rebuild her. She’s still racing under her latest owner. He’s going to keep her in the West Indies for another two years and then she goes to Spain.'

A half century on, Anitra is still sailing in Sydney and you can find Solveig in Hawaii.

These boats, and the history they created, were built to last.

Rolex Sydney Hobart website