Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race 2013 gets underway in a weeks' time, on 26th December. Tony Kirby is hugely regarded at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, and with 27 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Races under his belt, is a stalwart of the annual 628 nautical mile race.
Patrice, bow up and flying in the CYCA Trophy – Passage Series 2013
The Sydney yachtsman first started racing on his father Ray’s lovely Patrice III, ahead of campaigning on three of Stephen Ainsworth’s Lokis. Most recently, he has raced his own X41, Patrice Six. Yet that holiest of grails - a handicap win - has eluded Kirby.
So far, at any rate.
Now Kirby has a new Patrice, a Ker 46, and in the races leading up to Boxing Day she has performed like a little rocket ship. Two years in the making, Kirby’s 28th tilt at the challenge is looking like it is all coming together.
'I love long distance ocean racing,' Kirby says. 'There are plenty of regattas and shorter races along the way, but the big picture is Hobart. Everything leads up to it. In January I will start my plan for the next Hobart.'
Two years ago, the yachtsman decided that Patrice Six was getting old and it was time for a new boat. 'I could have bought a second hand TP52, it would have been cheaper than building a new boat, but the running costs of a TP52 are in the big league. Very expensive; I knew I wouldn’t be able to play at that level.'
So he started to look at the latest designs and already had a builder in mind. McConaghy’s at Mona Vale in Sydney has been building hi-tech racing yachts for years.
'You know that, no matter what conditions Bass Strait might throw at you, you won’t have to worry about the boat because of the quality of their build,' Kirby says of the company that also built the Ker 40, Midnight Rambler, which won the CYCA Trophy – Passage Series from Patrice last weekend.
He could not afford a boat built in the McConaghy yard in Mona Vale, but the company had opened a factory in China, so Kirby went to check it out. In a corner of the factory a Ker 46 was being built for a South African as a day racer.
'I didn’t want a one way boat; I’d be too frustrated when the conditions were wrong. Most of the top boats have been all-rounders,' Kirby says.
'The IRC rule was designed for the waters between France and England and run by the Royal Ocean Racing Club. British and French designed boats get good ratings. American designers don’t for some reason. I didn’t want a French boat. Jason Ker, the designer McConaghy had chosen for its production boat, the Ker 40, is British. All the stars aligned.'
The lanky Kirby could not fit into a Ker 40, so he ordered the 46. 'The first 46 was hugely successful. Patrice is a development of that. She is a tonne and a half lighter with a deeper keel.
The Ker 46 was designed with a big rig for the light, flat conditions of the Mediterranean. Kirby wanted a rig for the stronger winds and bigger seas of Australia.
'They are fuller, to go through waves. Bigger sails go faster, but you lose out on your rating handicap. We optimised the sails for the racing I would be doing with a program at Southampton University. My sails are smaller than on the first boat and I worried they might be too small, but they worked it all out.'
Kirby has assembled a top crew for the new boat; a mix of old faithfuls and old friends who are new to his crew.
'I prefer to create my own team; a champion team rather than a team of champions. You need guys who will turn up every week, who will not leave you short because they get a better ride on the day,' he says.
'I spent six years building the team I had on the last Patrice, but this is a faster, harder boat, very physically demanding. Everyone has to be able to multi-task. The navigator has to be able to handle sails when necessary; that sort of thing.
'Some of my older sailors could see that this wasn’t going to be for them, so there’s been a few changes and there’ll be more to come,' he says of adding the likes of hardened 34 race veteran Mike Green, and Peter Messenger, who will make this his 25th Hobart. They will join regulars, navigator Richard Grimes and Gail Harland, who has sailed 18 Hobarts.
It has been an all-consuming effort, but now the boat is racing, and it is performing really well. There is still a lot of fine tuning, according to her owner, but after 10 weeks on the water, Kirby can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
'It’s easy to make a boat go fast, but that little extra four percent is the hard bit,' he says, 'the costly bit.'
If Patrice is to fulfil Kirby’s dream this year, she will have to beat an outstanding fleet, including other band new Hobart focussed boats like Matt Allen’s highly fancied 60 footer Ichi Ban.
'Matt is a great sailor and he has a fantastic crew,' Kirby admits. 'He will be hard to beat, but what we had to do in 10 weeks with Patrice, he has to do in 10 days.'
All Kirby and his crew can do is sail flat out, and see how it all pans out.
'To win the Rolex Sydney Hobart you need four things,' Kirby says. 'A good boat, a good crew, you need to sail the right race, and then you need God to point his finger at you and say: ‘It’s your turn.’