Rolex Sydney Hobart 2011 overall handicap winner Stephen Ainsworth first sailed his own yacht in the 1998 Hobart race. A tough initiation but things have improved since then as Stephen explains to Sail-World.com
‘My first Hobart was in 1985 in a boat called Neville Chidgey’s Swanson 36 Mystic Seven.
‘I had done Sydney Noumea and Lord Howe Island races with Neville and then the Hobart race. I moved to the UK and was living there for six years, had a young family and was busy with work so I didn’t sail for six years.
Then I got back to Australia thought ‘I’ll get back into sailing’. I thought I could do some offshore racing but it took me a while to find a boat.
My first year doing the Sydney Hobart in my own boat was 1998, with my Swan 44 Loki. We rolled in Bass Strait and we didn’t do a complete 360 but was turned upside down and smashed a port hole and filled up with water, then basically ran bare poled, surfing down massive waves. We limped into Narooma, (north of Eden) the following day.
‘We stayed there overnight, took Michael Bell (the Swan dealer rep at the time sailing as crew) off to hospital as he had hurt his leg, we got the port hole fixed, steadied the boat and we went back to Sydney the next day.
By 2000 I had switched to a Swan 48, again called Loki. I was a slow boat in those days and was playing a trick coming home in the following breeze, as the 48 is a terrific boat upwind. Not much good downwind because it is too heavy but upwind it really sailed to its rating.
‘Then came the Reichel Pugh 60 Loki which we lost off Sardinia in October 2007 when the rudder broke on a lee shore.’ (Stephen and his crew were winched from life rafts by Italian Navy helicopters - ED
‘McConaghys built the 63 for us in 2008 at Mona Vale in Sydney. ‘It is a very, very good boat offshore and we can race in regattas and be very competitive too. It is a fantastic boat.
‘Reichel Pugh got it really right. We had a bit of surgery on the boat before it went into the water as there were problems that Reichel Pugh had with their chimes but it was worth the extra cost and time involved in fixing the problems.
‘We have had a great run with the boat, both offshore and around the cans in the last three years.
‘The hardest part of the 2011 Hobart, of course, was the first night. There was plenty of wind but it was only for the first hour it was really hammering. It wasn’t a constant 40 knots, just some initial gusts and probably only for half an hour or so.
‘We went to a double reef, and number 4, luckily, before it came. We got the chute off, put on a 4 jib and very quickly put one reef in and then put another reef in when it started to get violent. We were happy as we were ahead of the game when we approaching the roll front – which you could see was coming very quickly.
'When that front came through it hit us quite hard with gusts of up to 40 knots and driving rain - that was really quite stinging rain as big drops being driven 35-40 knots tend to hurt. After that we knuckled down and belted upwind for the next day or so and we had a bit of seasickness on board. Quite a few of the guys threw up, but they just kept on going.
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‘Coming down the north coast of Tasmania we had a soft patch and there was a bit of a transition. It did go quiet but we found our way through that reasonably well. The key was not to stop and we didn’t.
‘There was a good mix of conditions during the race, but probably the real highlight was the fact that we never stopped and we kept going the whole time. We nearly stopped, we got as low as two knots boat speed, but we managed to keep moving.
‘My brief to the navigators was ‘whatever you do don’t let us fall into a hole where we stop because that is fatal’. We were winning last year’s race as we got to the other side of Bass Strait after all that heavy air. We had our sister ship Limit 15 miles behind us but then we stopped - we just stopped and everybody was sailing up to the horizon. When you’re a high rating boat that’s just instant death to you on handicap.
‘These things nearly break your heart. It is just a cruel race, very cruel.
‘It is such a fickle race and it’s devastating when that happens. I was talking to Rob Hanna (TP52 Shogun) today and in this year’s race he fell in a hole and sat there for eight hours. They were in the river and they were becalmed and had a procession of boats sail around them, round the shore, after leading them for hours and hours, only to finish up hours behind them.
‘Now we have won the 2011 Sydney Hobart, by finishing at three in the morning, which is unusual.
‘From Tasman Light we had a reasonable 12 Knot (maybe) breeze, although it was a gradient breeze. We were able to carry the breeze pretty much until we past the Iron Pot and as we went up the Derwent it gradually faded. We ghosted in. We were desperately looking for any breeze that we could find and we had a code 0 up and we fell across the line. We were so relieved, that last few hundred metres was agony.
‘This year, actually when you look at it, was a big boat race. All the top boats in the handicap division are all from division 1 or 0.
‘Normally we’d not have expected to be able to keep going in the River so late at night - maybe it was Loki, the Norse God of mischief and trickery, playing up again.
‘I am very proud of our crew. They have evolved. I think the key part of this crew was bringing Gordon McGuire on board a couple of years ago, he is a great asset, a very good sailing master and very good at managing people. We have built a very nice team and they are all good guys and enjoy sailing on the boat
‘This boat has been remarkable. It’s been a progression - everything you learn as you are going along you put into the next boat. You develop experience and expertise with the people who you have been sailing with and utilise more of that, this boat is the result of a lot of years of accumulated expert experience and not just mine, but that of a number of people.
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‘This is a great boat and at 63 feet it is still manageable. I am very happy with it. I have been lucky in that, because of the state of the economy around the world after the GFC very few boats have been built, so it is still highly competitive.
‘Michael Hiatt’s Farr 55 Living Doll did well to take second this year. I was probably more surprised at how well Living Doll went as she has always struck me as a bit of a ‘one trick pony’, good in light air and flat water. I think they are sailing the boat a bit better in the sort of offshore conditions that we got and are now a contender in all conditions. .
‘Syd Fischer came third with his TP52 Ragamuffin. From our experience with the TP52's, if they get a lot of downwind component in the race they are competitive. They can sail to their rating very well and exceed their rating downwind, upwind and reaching … not so sure.
‘Overall there was quite a bit of upwind in this year’s race and our good transitions and our lucky run to the finish were the keys to winning 2011 Sydney Hobart race.
‘I will be back in 2012. Absolutely. It is a small group of people who have won a Hobart race but it’s a really small group of people who have won two. Hopefully I can join that exclusive club but I am 57 years old so if it’s going to take another 15 or 20 years, I don’t know if I will make the distance.’