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Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race - The Weather Gate

by John Curnow and Rob Kothe on 23 Dec 2012
Rail Meat of a different kind - the bears of the Kid’s Cancer Project, powered by Patrice Six. - Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race Alex McKinnon © http://www.alexmckinnonphotography.com
In order to win this iconic ocean race, there are three things you absolutely need to have accomplished. Two you can do something about, whereas the third is entirely out of your control.

Firstly, you have to get there. Sounds simple, but it means a well-prepared boat and hardened crew that extract what they can from the vessels and themselves, all the while ensuring that they and the gear survive whatever may be thrown at them during the journey South.

Secondly, you have to win your division. The big end of town will be long gone after the gun and in reality, the boats may be headed for the same port, but rarely in exactly the same seas and almost always in different conditions due to the elapsed time difference between them. Your division has boats of similar speeds near you and many a race has seen combatants almost able to read the dials on the boat next door. In 2012, one of these divisions of interest will be the eight Beneteau First 40s.

Finally, you have to hope that Hughie, the God of Wind, allows your division to get the correct weather window that will allow you to proceed at best possible speed down the New South Wales coast before leaping across to Tasmania and on to the corner at Tasman Island. At the same time, it is hoped that those ahead of you do not receive favourable conditions and then also that the weather pattern closes down behind to hamper the progress of the vessels to your stern.

Currently, this ‘weather window’ looks like being in the hand of the larger vessels, from say 60 feet up. They will able to plough South from Sydney Heads in the headwind, at up to 12 knots or so for the maxis. They will accumulate a margin over the smaller vessels that cannot match that sort of boat speed and then get the spinnakers out to accelerate even further and move on, gathering distance as they go.

A Westerly and potentially Southerly stream developing around day three is likely to hold the rest up and hence allow the large boats to hold on to and even increase the gap the gathered early and hence be in contention for the Tattersall’s Cup to mark their overall win.


So then, what you have when looking at trackers, is computer driven handicap predictions for the 628 mile Rolex Sydney to Hobart race, which ignore the fact that most races are won and lost in the last 40 miles from Tasman Light, then across Storm Bay and up past the Iron Pot and into the River Derwent proper.

As we have explained over the years, every ten minutes or so during the race, the computers spit out a new number set, with ranking. At best, these need to be taken with a tablespoon of sea salt.

Now in this maze of numbers, there is one which is far more important than all the others when deciding if the figures are, 'back of the boat fantasy land stuff', or not.

This number is the ETA. Turn Tasman Light at 20:00 and Huey says ‘Good that you could come and thank your mother for the fish’ or words to that effect…. And the reason is the factor that has caused possibly more heartache and grief in the last 67 Hobart races than anything else. Namely, the Derwent goes to sleep at night, just like most humans.

11 nautical miles from the finish is a marker called the Iron Pot. A boat arriving there may have averaged ten knots from Eddystone Light and across Storm Bay. However, it may take two or three, even four hours to go that last 11 miles, depending just how tired the Derwent is. It seems most Hobart sailors have a story to tell and year after year, they look for sympathy from other sailors, but they don’t get it.

Many a boat has been absolutely famous at 2000hrs, but at 0300 is still drifting up the Derwent. Indeed, just a couple of years ago, one particular vessel reported in at around 2100hrs that they were ‘just passing the Iron Pot with an ETA of 2300hrs.’ Only about five minutes later the same crew radioed in to say that they were once more passing the Iron Pot, ‘only, this time backwards!’

You see Hughie uses the Sydney Hobart race to remind us mere mortals that most things in life are about timing. So it's way too early to decide a handicap chance, which is most easily done when the boats are tied up in Constitution Dock.

The 2010 Tattersall’s Cup (IRC handicap) winner, Geoff Boettcher's Reichel-Pugh 51, Secret Men’s Business 3.5, finished at an almost perfect time 1342hrs.

Not just a few sailors have had the Weather Gate slam in their face; just about every one of us has had a 'Derwent experience.'

(Here’s a Sail-World tip. Use a lighted candle in a winch socket to find the breeze. It’s more sensitive than cigarette smoke and it winds the smokers up an absolute treat, for on board a non-smoking vessel, they may have seen their best chance yet to inhale a few more addictive gasps and the dream of using that to ‘assist’ the crew in the unfortunate hours of the night had been playing on their mind for the last 610 nautical miles.

So then, we are not going to spend every night during the Hobart race writing feverishly about the half hourly changes in Handicap positions, we are going to have a few Tasmanian Boags or Cascades and do what the Derwent does – shut the gate and go to sleep!

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