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History of Rolex Sydney Hobart 1945 - 2006

by Peter Campbell on 26 Dec 2007
The start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2006. © Andrea Francolini Photography http://www.afrancolini.com/

The Rolex Sydney Hobart ranks historically, along with the Rolex Fastnet Race in England and the Bermuda Race in the USA, as one of the three great ocean passage races of the world. The 2007 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, starting from Sydney Harbour at 1.00pm on Boxing Day, December 26, will be the 63rd annual race conducted by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the nation’s premier ocean racing club.

Over the past 62 years, the Rolex Sydney Hobart has become an icon of Australia’s summer sport, ranking in public interest with such national events as the Melbourne Cup horse race, the Australian Open tennis and the cricket tests between Australia and England.

It has been – and still is – a world leader in ocean yacht racing, in the professional race management and safety standards set by the CYCA, in the operations of its media communications centre and, of course, and in the standards set for yacht construction, rigging and stability of its fleet racing under the international rating rules (currently IRC). The CYCA has added even further to the stringent regulations of a Category 1 ocean race, particularly in regard to safety at sea training and the experience of the crew of each boat.

Perhaps most of all is the high standard of seamanship shown by these who skipper, navigate and crew these yachts south in the Tasman Sea to Hobart, largely amateur sailors who have successfully sailed, sometimes just survived, through some of the toughest ocean racing conditions in the world.

No yachting event in the world attracts such huge media coverage – except, of course, the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race around the world – than does the start on Sydney Harbour. And they only happen every four or five years; the Rolex Sydney Hobart is an annual event.

The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race began in 1945 when a group of Sydney yachtsmen planned a post-World War II cruise to Hobart. A Royal Navy officer, Captain John Illingworth RN, who had been a keen racing yachtsman in Britain before the war, joined them. He was stationed in Sydney and bought the 39-foot Rani. Nine yachts started on Boxing Day, 1945 and several were 'lost' during the race, among them Rani which sailed through stormy weather to take line and handicap (corrected time) honours.

The Sydney Hobart has been held every year since, with the inaugural fleet growing to a record 371 starters in the 50th race in 1994 - the largest fleet in the world for a Category 1 ocean race. Among that remarkable fleet were two yachts that started in the inaugural race – Archina and Winston Churchill. Among the crews were two yachtsmen, Peter Luke and 'Boy' Messenger, by then in their mid to late 70s, who had sailed in 1945.

Of the fleet, 308 yachts finished and were packed gunwale to gunwale in Hobart’s historic Constitution Dock and Sullivan’s Cove.

The 628 nautical mile course starts from Sydney Harbour, a natural amphitheatre for spectators on the headlands, and takes the fleet down the East Coast of Australia, across the eastern edge of Bass Strait which divides the island State of Tasmania from the Australian mainland.

Then it’s then down the Tasmanian East Coast where, after rounding the towering perpendicular rock of Tasman Island, the fleet sails the final 30 nautical miles across Storm Bay and then 11 miles up the Derwent River to the finish off historic Battery Point in Hobart, Australia’s second oldest city.

The 'Hobart' is unique because it is one of the most challenging ocean races in the world, with uncertain weather that can range from a rollicking spinnaker run down the NSW South Coast before a 15-20 knot nor’easter to a howling southwesterly front bringing winds of up to 50-60 knots, sometimes more, and massive boat and body-breaking seas. Bass Strait is notorious for its short, steep seas due to its relative shallow depth and strong currents and the regular fronts bringing gales from the south and south-west.

There has never been a Sydney to Hobart without a significant change in the wind direction and strength, and there have been some turbulent years that have battered boats and bodies into submission.

The worst races in recent years have been in 1984, 1993 and 1998. In 1984 a fleet of 150 yachts started and 104 retired in strong to galeforce southerly winds that battered the fleet off the NSW South Coast and in Bass Strait.

In 1993 there were 110 starters but only 38 yachts (including an all-women crew) battled their way to Hobart through a series of south-westerly and southerly fronts with gusts of up 70 knots. Crews abandoned two yachts as they sank while the skipper of another yacht was washed overboard at night and spent five hours in high seas and strong winds until spotted by a searching ship and picked up another yacht. He returned to racing two years later - in a bigger boat and won his division.

Tragedy shrouded the Sydney to Hobart in 1998 when the worst storm in the history of the race struck the fleet as most of the 115 yachts entered Bass Strait. Competitors reported west and south-westerly winds of up to 80 knots and sea of 15 metres, some to 20 metres, as a 'Bass Strait Bomb' exploded in the form of an intense depression (the barometer dropped to 982 Mb in the race area) south-east of Gabo Island on December 27, maintaining much of its intensity for 36 hours.

Of the 115 yachts that started, 71 retired. In a remarkable search and rescue operation, helicopters and surface vessels rescued 55 sailors from 12 stricken yachts and in a man overboard situation. Seven boats were abandoned and five sank during the storm, most of them after having been rolled by the huge seas, as were most of the other yachts in difficulty. Sadly, six crewmembers perished at sea in the worst tragedy in the race’s long history.

In the past 62 races (to 2006) a total of 4,976 yachts carrying an estimated total 44,600 crew, have started in the Sydney Hobart. Of that number 3,928 boats completed the race, 910 retired for various reasons.

Then, what is the attraction? It is the challenge of the wind and the sea, the comradeship of this adventure, the competitive boat-for-boat, tactical encounters and, not the least, the remarkable hospitality that Tasmanians show the crews who have reached their island State. No other similar passage yacht race in the world is accorded such a magnificent start from Sydney Harbour nor such a huge welcome as the first yacht berths at Hobart’s historic Constitution Dock. The Hobartians and visitors from around the world are there in thousands, no matter the time of day or night.

Ocean yacht racing is also a sport for young and old. Although the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia now insists that at least 50% of the crew of each yacht must be experienced and trained in sea safety and aged 18 years or more.

Since that small group of intrepid sailors headed south to Tasmania in the inaugural race in 1945, 74 yachtsmen have been recorded by the CYCA’s Quiet Little Drink ‘committee’ as having sailed in 25 of the annual blue water classics. Like the winning yachts, their names are on an honour board in the Clubhouse.

The late Tasmanian yachtsman John Bennetto holds the record with 44 individual races, but Victorian Lou Abrahams and New South Welshman Tony Cable will equal it this year.

Abrahams is one of three octogenarians who will be skippering their yachts to Hobart in the 63rd race. Abrahams, 80, will skipper his Sydney 38 Challenge, while Sydney yachtsmen John Walker, 85, is heading south again in his Peterson 34 Impeccable and 81-year-old Syd Fischer is skippering his latest Ragamuffin, a Transpac 52 in his 39th Hobart Race. Walker will be become the oldest competitor in the history of the ocean classic.

The Rolex Sydney Hobar

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