by Jim Gale
The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2012 will be officially started by three sailors who were also part of the Boxing Day race classic 50 years ago.
Colin McLachlan, James Sandison and Phillip Hill
In the time honoured tradition of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia three veterans of the race 50 years ago will fire the starting sequence for the 2012 Rolex Sydney Hobart on Boxing Day.
The chaos of Sydney Harbour, the bulk of the racing yachts trying to thread their way through the washing machine created by the hundreds of spectator craft will no doubt bring back memories. For the frontrunners, the carbon fibre super maxis and 60 footers though, will clear the bay in barely 10 minutes are from another world.
The 10 minute gun, a 19th century replica canon, will be fired by Phil Hill, who sailed to Hobart in 1962 aboard Malohi, the yacht then owned by Syd Fischer.
Twenty-one at the time, Hill had already been to Hobart twice; on the radio relay ship when he was 17 and 19, so he knew a bit of what to expect, though he may not have been fully prepared for the intensely competitive Fischer.
'We had very quick run across Bass Strait,' Hill recalls, 'and as the wind built up, Boy Messenger asked Syd whether we should drop the spinnaker, or wait until it blew out. ‘Wait until it blows out’ Syd shouted back’,' Hill recalls fondly.
'Syd drove his boats very hard downwind. He was a former surfboat sweep. He’d have us all at the back of the boat. I was the lightest and youngest in the crew, so I was the only one allowed to move about the boat.'
Despite a fog down the Tasmanian coast, it was a comparatively mild race that year. Hill went down on Malohi the next year, 1963.
'We took a pounding. Syd says that 1963 was worse than the disastrous 98 storm,' remembers Hill, who went on to later race to Hobart on Fare Thee Well and Salacia, when he first sailed with Tony Cable, who will set a record this year of 47 starts.
'They were comfortable boats in those days; you could go to sleep when you were off watch,' said Hill who can only wonder that at 85, Syd Fischer is still racing to Hobart on Ragamuffin-Loyal. There will be little opportunity for sleep on the 100 foot maxi, but then it should get to Hobart within two days.
One of the great American characters of Australian ocean racing, Jimmy (the Reb) Sandison will fire the five minute gun.
Sandison, originally from Georgia, crewed Huey Long’s superb maxi, Ondine, to a line honours win in 1962, and then followed it up with two line honours victories aboard Astor, another on Stormvogel and a final win on Ondine II, a boat he describes these days as a 70 foot monster.
'Ondine and Astor had charged down the Tasmanian coast in a hard nor-wester, with Astor in the lead, when the wind dropped right out. Ondine was a noted light wind flyer and we had just about caught up with Astor at the Iron Pot,' Sandison recalled.
'We raced neck and neck up the Derwent until the last quarter mile. Ondine carried a regular spinnaker pole, but on Astor they had to take the pole all the way around the back and up the other side when they gybed. We dip-poled and beat her across the line by one minute.'
Those were the days when maxi yachts roamed the high seas from race to race. 'I joined Ondine in Tahiti, when one of her crew left, and after we raced to Hobart we sailed her back through Wellington and the Panama Canal. Then I sailed out on Astor.'
The American yachtsman describes Ondine’s modern day equivalents as 100 foot skiffs. 'You could deliver one to America, but I wouldn’t want to be in the crew. We used to boast how many steak dinners we ate during the race, now they race on freeze dried food.'
They call Georgia born Jimmy ‘the Reb’ because he insisted on flying the rebel flag during races. An honorary Australian, Sandison did his boat building apprenticeship at Halvorsen’s in Sydney. He spends a month in Australia every year visiting family and catching up with his CYCA mates from all those races half a century ago.
'My 12 year old granddaughter, Hannah, will be with me on the official start boat, Aussie Legend,' he says. 'She is so excited she doesn’t know what to do with herself.'
The final gun belongs to Colin McLachlan, the only surviving member of the crew that steered the great Solo to her first overall in 1962 - it was his first ever Hobart race.
'I visited an old family friend in Hobart after we finished, and I slept for 20 hours,' he recalls. The celebrations lasted a little longer than that, and finally Solo left for New Zealand on one 926 mile long tack.
Solo cruised the great southern fiords, and McLachlan fondly remembers the lobster they dined on, provided by the fishing boats they encountered.
'They gave us their undersize catch, because they thought Solo was a fisheries boat,' McLachlan says.
Ah, those were the days.
Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2012