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2015 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race – True grit

by Jack Macartney on 19 Jan 2016
Jack_Macartney_ Jack Macartney
2015 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race – As we lay flat on our side in 40+ knots of wind, crew members hanging in the air, torrential rain pelting us like thousands of mini daggers to the face and in the pitch black of an angry night, I was confronted by the real and present danger of the race.

With a minute thirty on the start countdown we tacked on the boat-end spectator boundary in good position, only to snag the Waterways exclusion buoy with our starboard rudder. The only way to free it was to heel the boat right over and try to slip the rope off, so at 45 degrees heel and fully powered up a minute early for the start line - it slipped free –leaving us sailing at warp speed - pulling away – straight at a busy start line trying to find a gap for a massive 100fter! Thankfully, one appeared right on the bow of Rambler, and we hit the line with speed and in reasonable position. I thought we’ll take that given where we were 45 seconds prior!

A near miss with a 50fter off the line had the blood pumping. A boat tacked onto Port right in front of us, we were on target to hit them at amidships but bore hard away before Witty shouted: “Trim up Jack, trim up Jack”. I was looking at the crew on the boat on our bow, eyes big as plates and hearts in their mouths as our 4m bow prod skimmed over their stern narrowly missing a rhino impaling. Never in doubt I say.

Somehow we got out of the Harbour in reasonable shape. We couldn’t carry our water ballast in the beat off the start due to the transfer time during tacks. Thus we were hampered by a massive loss in righting moment while the other SuperMaxi’s were fully ballasted. The goal was to be in the lead bunch at the outer seamark and that we were.

The Ragamuffin 100 is a weapon in hard running conditions and waves. We were confident that we could take advantage of the nice NE’er and make it to the impending front (due early evening) in reasonable shape against Oats, Comanche and Rambler.

We battled side by side with Oats all the way down the coast averaging 20-24knots in that amount of breeze. We weren’t really able to ‘light the boat up’ as the wave state was a little short for surfing; we were continually running into the back of the waves and weren’t able to give full voice to her design. Regardless, we were pleased to be even with Oats and very much in striking distance of Comanche.

Navigator Steve Hayles did a great job briefing us on the weather in the lead up to the race and during. He was well across what was expected and filled the crew with confidence and an understanding. As the front came up the coast the observations were telling us that it was nothing out of the ordinary. It appeared to be abating from 40+ knots to 20+ knots after the first couple of hours, so we felt prepared and comfortable with what was ahead.

Rambler were the first to gybe onto starboard and head back into the coast to greet the new pressure. We crossed them by about 2NM with Wild Oats 500 metres directly to leeward of us and Comanche 8NM in front.

As darkness fell we were totally engaged in our battle with Oats and gybed simultaneously with them. Our Intel said the front was 7-10 minutes away but not entirely certain. We continued with the A3, J4 and full main for a brief moment before Witty firmly ordered the A3 be furled. It took a couple of minutes: there was an issue with the furling line, so Witty’s urgency heightened very quickly.

I was on the main looking up thinking ‘shit we need to start putting reefs in now’ the water was looking very dark and angry up ahead. The A3 weighs approximately 250KG’s, goes to the top of the 144ft mast and is the length of the boat – basically it’s a huge sail and getting it down is like wrestling a giant python.

Finally, the A3 was furled but we still had to get it out of the lock and on the deck – quick smart. Matt Humphries behind me upped the intensity by screaming “it’s coming, get it out of the air now”. Too late she cried. The front came through and whacked us with the full force of a Mother Nature backhander. Although the wind was 40+knots (there have been many windier) it was the shortness of the transition, intense rain and darkness that swept across us which was seriously disarming.

We could hardly hear the person standing next to us let alone the bowman on the foredeck standing 70ft away. As we wrestled to get the A3 down the wind took hold and unfurled it like a marlin striking and taking off. It was a very serious position to be in. The mast was a real chance of coming down – in fact I was certain it was going to.

The boat was pinned on its side in a flash with the full main, A3 and J4 violently ragging above us. Remembering this is a 100ft SuperMaxi with unimaginable loads in any sailing conditions – I don’t think anyone on board had been in this situation before.

It quickly became apparent that we needed to pull the boat away and run back towards Sydney to get the A3 down (which had now started to shred) and then reef the main to continue racing. It was, however, like being held down by a clean up set and rag dolled while red-lining for a breath.

Witty turned to me urgently “we have to get the boat away now or the rig is coming down”. With that I skied the boom and dumped the sheet. I was literally holding onto the last inch of mainsheet. Witty pulled hard away; the boat loaded up going from 0knts to 25knots in a heartbeat. We couldn’t see anything in front of us nor could we hear – all we had were the instruments telling us where we were heading. As we pulled away I looked over my shoulder and saw the stern light of Wild Oats and some of the crew in the cockpit. We must have shaved their stern by a matter of meters in the pitch black at ‘Mach 10’. It sends a shiver down my spine thinking how easily we could have collected them.

So now we were running by-the-lee in 40 + knots with full sail up, doing 25+ knots straight into a sizable NE swell. Shards of lightening exploded in front of us lighting up the scary face of our predicament – it was truly spectacular in revealing the nightmare on our hands. We had 80% of the crew on the foredeck wrestling the giant A3 down while we were leaping off waves and slamming down hard off the back. The guys on the foredeck were holding onto a whale’s tail: at any moment the giant could flick and send the crew flying into the dark. Meanwhile, they were fully stretched trying to keep their feet on deck as the boat leapt off waves. “Terror” doesn’t really justify the feeling.

We sailed 15NM back to Sydney in half an hour, all the while thinking how is the mast still up? Can we please get the sail down a little faster?!

The call came from the bow the sail is down and tucked away below deck, a glimmer of hope but disappointment with the lost miles. Next challenge – we need to reef the main. As we turned into the breeze the violent night again reared its head: stinging rain, darkness and a dense front. We started pumping water ballast in, keel fully canted and main out of the lock, coming down. Things were looking up.

Then the lazy jacks on leeward side of the main broke and wrapped around one of the batten ends, prohibiting us from reefing. The main was at the mercy of the wind; at any moment it could destroy itself – even tear it off the mast cars and set sail out the back like a kite. The fury of the front sounding its horn on the sail flapping wildly in the wind, with every crack of the whip shooting a tingle down my spine, is this one going to blow it up?

Could it get any worse? Yes!

Suddenly, in the pitch black, the boat auto-tacked. We literally capsized to 90 degrees; mast in the water up the top, mainsail in the water, half the boat under water and indeed the crew. I reckon Syd Fischer, who was in his bunk below deck, must have been lying on the roof thinking this can’t be good!

Is everyone still on-board? Are we filling up with water? Will the rig survive?

At this point I’m up my chest in water holding onto the mainsheet winch like a rock crab on Ben Buckler in a big Southerly swell. Witty was up to his neck in the Ragamuffin spar-bath holding onto the wheel with one hand, garbling instructions which were extremely difficult to hear three meters away let alone the rest of the crew further up the boat. The enormity of the situation struck home – this is now survival for the entire crew and boat.

The engine stalled leaving the keel stuck - and the water ballast full - to leeward effectively pinning us on our side.

There were a number of things we needed to do in this situation (apart from not fall off) – let the jib off, swap the runners, get the engine going and then cant the keel to right the boat. It took around five minutes for this to happen and the team did a great job of sticking to roles and staying focused amidst the carnage.

Up she came like the Flying Dutchman, Davy Jones himself (Witty) still hanging on to the wheel. We weren’t out of the woodwork yet. The main was still most of the way up the mast and looked like a bed sheet after a stinking hot night. The reefing lines were loose as a result of the main being slightly down and the boom ‘lock’ bullets were whizzing by Captain Cam and myself every time the main flogged. At one point one of the reef lines wrapped around Cams head which he quickly freed – I was acutely aware of the danger each time the bullets were being fired.

As we started to wrestle the beast under control I was again amazed that the mast was still standing and the mainsail in one piece, testament to the new C Tech battens replaced three days before the race and perhaps a bit of luck.

At this moment two men stood up and took charge to get the main down – Tommy Clout and Luke Parkinson, two of the youngest members on the team. I later said to Tommy how awesome he was in getting it done and his response was “well I was so terrified I simply had to do something”! I think that echoed most of the crew’s thoughts.

It took one moment for the team to realise that we were still in the race when we saw the rig in one piece. It would have been VERY easy to retire then and there but not a word was spoken. With true grit we dug in and got the ship back in full race mode, cannons positioned for battle. Eventually we got the mainsail completely down and untangled the mess before re-hoisting to the third reef.

The next update: we had recovered from a 30NM loss to Comanche and Rambler to be only 8NM behind going into Bass Straight. Many boats retired including Oats - a lot of racing left yet. I was shivering like a greyhound in a cold bath - wet to the core sitting on deck gripping the mainsheet with concrete teeth, feeling like I’d just got off a Red Baron joy ride doing loops and ready to lurch – no paper bag needed.

As the night wore on, conditions remained tough. We flew off the back of a wave and heard a loud crunching noise. There was no visible damage but the boat didn’t feel right for a number of hours. We didn’t find the source of the problem until daylight: the daggerboard had sheared clean off at the bottom of the hull. We had been sailing for some five hours with a lot of leeway and once again given up a many miles to the leaders.

We immediately tacked onto port and devised a plan to end-for-end the remaining dagger board. It weighs 250KG individually and is 5M long, so it’s not a simple process to pull it out and stick in the other side of the boat! We had to winch it out on a spare halyard with the crew hanging onto the swinging plank all the while the boat bouncing and lurching around under them making it look like a hot-shoe-shuffle with a gruff bunch of ballerinas! Once on the deck, we drilled a large hole in the bottom of the dagger board, attached the halyard, did the dance again and then lined up the slot and dropped it in. Sounds easy: huh, its not.

The seaway worsened slightly and yet another mini front saw us back in the third reef. The Jib A frame (or tack-line) broke three times during this period which also cost us plenty, but again the team got on with the job, got the jury rig back on and off we charged. The unspoken “never give up” attitude of the Team Ragamuffin is undeniable.

By this point we had given up 50 or 60 miles to Rambler and Comanche. We continued to push hard, reef in / reef out and realised the potential for a ‘park up’ as the high-pressure system engulfed the east coast of Tassie.

The breeze lightened and the following morning we were racing the high-pressure ridge South, chasing ‘Simpson clouds’ in the knowledge there was new pressure under them. To get there though we sailed further away from the finish line – it was Matt Humphries Round the World experience that galvanised our effort to keep the foot down and lit the beacon of hope that if we did get through this, the lead pair were well within our reach.

The news then came through that Comanche had made it through Storm Bay and was clearly going to sail up the Derwent with pressure and finish hours ahead but that Rambler who had been hot on Comanche’s heels, was parked up under Tasman Light, waiting for us to do battle in the final miles.

What a lot of people forget is how far there still is to go once in the Derwent and how much the race can change. In 0-five knots of wind we chipped away at Rambler, swapping our 250KG daggerboard each time we tacked – the ‘heard’ on the foredeck wrestling it down and back up without question. Each time we did, was like two steps forward, one step back – the leeway you experience upwind without a daggerboard is significant.

Finally, we were in sight of the finish line. We’d passed Rambler only to be passed again and they defended very well: a great team. We identified a new pressure line on the horizon which they did not. Once they gybed out we knew we had got them, a 12-hour battle up the Derwent and we came out on top.

What did I learn from all of this?

Seamanship is paramount in this treacherous stretch of water – Rambler did the best job through the transition into the front and they were deserved leaders for much of the race. The rest of us did not set-up in time to greet the front despite its sudden arrival.

Safety gear worn is essential – a strobe light was ripped off the back of the boat during the ordeal and I was amazed at how far I could see it in the dark. So if I had fallen off the side I would have been calmed with a strobe light on hand and absolutely terrified without.

Finally, that the Tassie scallop pie tastes so much better after a galvanising experience like this. What makes this race so special is its ability to test you on all levels and bring a team to its knees to find out if you can get back up.

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