At the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, a special honour roll is reserved for the sailors who have done 25 Sydney Hobarts and this year, when Ichi Ban crew member Darren Senogles sets sail for Hobart, he will be the youngest sailor ever to join that illustrious company.
In a happy coincidence, he is following in the footsteps of two of his fellow Ichi Ban crew. Michael Spies, doing his 36th race this year, was the youngest when he notched up his 25th, then Rob Case took on the mantle three years ago.
However, Senogles knows his place in the record books is permanent. He did his first race at the age of 14; now budding young ocean racers must wait until they are 18 to get a ride south in the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s annual 628 nautical mile race.
'I remember everything about that first race,' Senogles reminisces. 'It remains my most memorable race, not only because it was my first, but for the first 24 hours we had a 30 knot nor-easter downwind; probably the biggest downwind ride I had ever had offshore. It just kept going and going. It was awesome.'
Senogles, known to yachties as ‘Dags’, courtesy of his father, did his first four Hobarts on his father Dave’s boats: 'Three on Mistress Away and then Mistress Mercy, which Dad and I built.'
For this was another era, when backyard built cruiser/racers still jostled each other at the start line, interspersed with more Spartan racer/cruisers, which still had bunks and a proper galley, but were a bit wetter and more blokey. More likely a curtain around the head (toilet) than a door. At the front of the fleet, the outright racing boats skippers’ worried that even a curtain was extra weight.
It was an era when interstate competitors would pack the CYCA marina, living on their boats while they waited for Boxing Day. Christmas Day, the Club would roar with good cheer as sozzled yachties competed to build and sail a plywood raft capable of reaching the end of A Marina. Few succeeded.
And at the other end, Hobart’s Constitution Dock became the scene of a weeklong party. A hundred crews living side by side jam-packed in the tight concrete square, sprawled over neighbours’ boats as the wind and waves in Bass Strait grew in direct proportion to the empty stubbies dockside.
'We were all just happy to get there,' Senogles remembers. 'That was achievement enough.
'It was mind blowing the first time going through the lifting bridge into Constitution Dock; hundreds of people cheering you, everyone in party mode.'
Leaving the family boat for his fifth race, Senogles began the long journey towards a career as a professional sailor.
'I had aspirations of doing Whitbreads, but didn’t really know how to get out of the envelope. I finished school and worked with Dad as a carpenter with the idea of taking over the family business. But I had this idea about sailing, and eventually I got the opportunity to look after a boat and gradually I got into it full time,' Senogles, says.
In his sixth Hobart, he won the race overall aboard Nigel Holman’s IMS racing boat Cuckoos Nest – and nearly won on line. It was 1993 – the race most yachties agree was the toughest race ever. Of 104 starters only 38 reached Hobart.
In many ways Senogles’ career has charted the evolution of professional yacht racing. The boats have got more and more exotic; these days resembling the old cruiser/racers in much the same way Formula One cars resemble the family Holden.
They are more technical, faster, bone jarring, demanding the level of crew fitness and athleticism that characterises all modern professional sports.
'The main thing is to keep current. You have to keep doing it, and at the end you are only as good as your last results,' Senogles says.
'These days, guys can leave school and get a job on a boat. There are sailing academies where you get experience and known about the place.
'In my day, we stumbled our way through. I did an apprenticeship and had a career before sailing, and in that perhaps I was lucky. There are great opportunities for young guys now, but going out and getting an apprenticeship and learning how to manage yourself and finish a job: those skills are priceless.
'I’m 40. I don’t know how long it will be that I can still make a living doing this, but I can still fall back on the formal training I have.'
Of all the great boats he has sailed, Stephen Ainsworth’s acclaimed 60 footer, Loki, has pride of place in his heart.
'I was Stephen’s boat captain from when Loki was just a piece of paper. I watched her being built, looked after her full time and went everywhere with that boat. She never left the dock without me.
'I did every single mile she did. I poured everything I had into that boat. I had just divorced and it was a great distraction and we got great results,' he says of their winning the 2011 Rolex Sydney Hobart, finishing second last year and winning the Blue Water Point Score, among the yacht’s many accolades.
'And it wasn’t just the boat; it was the whole team - the people.'
Other Loki crew members will also sail aboard Ichi Ban this year, merging with Matt Allen’s other crew.
Ichi Ban may have only been in the water a few weeks, but she is already a strong race favourite. 'We all know each other and are on the same page, thinking alike: there to do a job' says Senogles.
'Getting used to the boat will come. It is coming and it is good.'
Of his record, Senogles muses, 'Twenty five years is a long time and a lot happens in your life. You get different priorities, but the Hobart race is something I really love doing. It’s moulded my life; made me stronger and more determined.
'I never imagined I’d be where I am. Dad deserves a lot of the credit. He and mum still have a boat they cruise around the Hawkesbury. I grew up on the Hawkesbury, every holiday on the family boat, the one we did the Hobart on.
'It’s different these days. I don’t think we’ll ever be down the Hawkesbury on Ichi Ban.'
The start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will be broadcast live on the Severn Network throughout Australia, the Australia Network throughout the Asian Pacific region and webcast live to a global audience on Yahoo!7 from 12;30pm until 2:00pm on Boxing Day.
Rolex Sydney Hobart website
by Jim Gale, RSHYR Media
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