This year’s Melbourne to Hobart ‘Westcoaster’ yacht race will be the 40th annual race down the exposed west coast of Tasmania. It is also the 30th consecutive race for Melbourne yachtsman Robin Hewitt in his steel-hulled sloop Yoko.
The Member for Hobart, Doug Parkinson MLC, today officially launched the 2011 Heemskirk Consolidated Melbourne to Hobart Westcoaster and its newer Eastcoaster at the host club, the Derwent Sailing Squadron.
The Ocean Racing Club of Victoria will despatch the two Melbourne to Hobart race fleets from a line off Portsea, just inside Port Phillip Heads, at 10am on 27 December, heading in different directions across Bass Strait, with 70-year-old Hewitt again choosing the traditional Westcoaster for his 30th voyage to Hobart.
Ironically, after successfully sailing to Hobart 29 times, Robin Hewitt did not make it from Melbourne to Hobart for today’s launch; he and the Commodore of the ORCV missed their flight out of Melbourne. But in an email apologising to Commodore Ron Bugg of the DSS, he gave an assurance he would make it next time – under sail!
Among Yoko’s opposition on its 30th race will be another yacht designed by Ben Lexcen, Hot August Night, sailing in its first Melbourne to Hobart Westcoaster. Owned by Derwent Sailing Squadron member Nat Morgan, Hot August Night is the only Tasmanian boat in the Westcoaster fleet.
There is a vast difference in the boats, although both were designed by Miller (Lexcen) and launched in the late 1970s, early 1980s, around the time he began designing Australia II and its winged keel.
Yoko is a sturdy steel hulled masthead sloop, 15.4m in length overall that has withstood 29 Westcoaster batterings, as well as races from Melbourne to Osaka and Vanuatu. It still has the original mast.
Hot August Night is a 10.5 metre modern-style racing yacht built in carbon fibre by McConaghy Boats that raced competitively in Sydney before being brought to Tasmania.
'This will be the first Westcoaster for all six of us in the crew, but we have been training for this race since Nat bought the boat two years ago,' Hot August Night watch captain Mark Dawson said at the official launch.
'We sailed in last year’s Launceston to Hobart Race and qualified for the Westcoaster by competing in the Maria Island Race last month,' added Dawson, who has sailed in several Sydney Hobart races, including three aboard the well-performed Patrice Six.
Morgan and Dawson will be joined aboard Hot August Night by Rodney Gay, Melissa Probin, Matt Dale and Ben Ward.
The Melbourne to Hobart Westcoaster was the concept of Stan Gibson, then Commodore of the Ocean Racing Club of Victoria and Dr Joe Cannon of the Derwent Sailing Squadron. They had studied the weather patterns in Bass Strait and down Tasmania’s western and south coastlines and decided that a race this way to Hobart was feasible and safe.
The Westcoaster began with ‘prophets of doom’ in the media predicted dire consequences for the fleet from howling westerly gales that would blow the yachts onto a rugged lee shore, never to crawl their way out to sea.
'It was akin to the convicts trying to get out of Hells Gates (at Port Macquarie). That’s how it was portrayed,' recalls Bruce Legg, a 45 year member of Sandringham Yacht Club, who sailed in the inaugural race as bowman on Tawarri II.
'We were certainly going into the unknown. For sure, it was not exactly benign, as the predicted 40 knots did arrive, but I had faith in the crew…and were never concerned by it,' added Legg, who will be the official starter of this year’s race.
Forty years on, the ORCV and the DSS have created a unique ocean race, the only one to go down the western side of Tasmania.
The Westcoaster also has an enviable safety record as the only Christmas time Australian race to enter the Southern Ocean. The reward for competitors has been sailing past some of the most dramatic and scenic coastline in the world, including Maatsuyker Island with the most southern lighthouse in Australia.
The Melbourne to Hobart Eastcoaster has one again attracted a strong fleet, including No Fearr, skippered by Heemskirk’s CEO Kevin Robinson. No Fearr won the Westcoaster in 2006 when owned and skippered by Matt Hannaford.
The ORCV will again run three ocean races to Tasmania – the 40th Westcoaster of 440 nautical miles, the more recently added Eastcoaster of 460 nautical miles and the 190 nautical mile Melbourne to Launceston (Low Head), first sailed in 1907.
All three fleets will set sail together at 10am on December 27, setting different courses once they clear The Rip at the entrance to Port Phillip.