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In the wake of the classic cutter Morna

by Peter Campbell on 28 Dec 2007
Morna, by then named Kurrewa IV taking line honours in 1957 Sydney Hobart race - photo by the late Brian Curtis SW
As Wild Oats XI swept across the finish line of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race this morning to equal the record of three successive line honours wins set by the cutter Morna 59 years ago, the old yacht swung forlornly on a mooring in Neutral Bay, a deep inlet in the northern shore of Sydney Harbour.

Once the pride of Sydney Harbour and, indeed, the early ocean races to Hobart, Morna has not hoisted a sail in many a year. The only time she moves off her mooring is to be towed to a slipway to have her hull anti-fouled.

While Wild Oats XI has equalled Morna’s record of three line honours wins in a row, from 1946 to 1948, she still has a long way to go to achieve this boat’s remarkable seven line honours wins over a time space of 14 years between 1946 and 1960.

The first three wins were as Morna, owned by Sir Claude Plowman, a Tasmanian-born, Sydney-based industrialist. Her next four wins were as Kurrewa IV, owned by the Victorian pastoralist brothers Frank and John Livingston.

Designed by Scottish naval architect William Fife and built on Sydney’s Longnose Point by Morrison and Sinclair, Morna was launched in 1913 for the then Commodore of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron Sir Alexander MacCormick, a noted surgeon.

Her length overall is 19.8m (65 feet) and, in marked contrast to the high tech carbon fibre hull of Wild Oats XI, she was built of timber with a timber mast and gaff topsail rig. Fife designed her in the typical metre-boat style of the early 1900s, capable of carrying a huge gaff mainsail and topsail that made her the fastest boat in Sydney at that time.

MacCormick had her built for cruising and as the flagship of the Squadron and it was many years before Morna was upgraded to racing inshore and offshore.

MacCormick sold her to another prominent RSYS member James Marsh Hardie when he acquired the beautiful schooner Ada in England. Ada was also later to take line honours in the Sydney Hobart Race, in 1963 and 1964 under the name of Astor and owned by Peter Warner.

Another owner of Morna was the publisher Frank (later Sir Frank) Packer, but it was not until after World War II that Plowman bought the boat, re-rigged as a Bermudan cutter, and put together a crack racing crew headed by ‘Rubber’ Kellaway as sailing master, Don Robertson as watch captain and Captain Livesay as navigator.

Morna won line honours in the 1946 Sydney Hobart with a time of 5 days 02 hours 03 minutes and 54 seconds, 36 hours faster that the time set by the first race winner Rani in 1945.

In 1947, her elapsed time was 5:03:54; in 1948 she recorded 4:05:01:21.

Sir Claude Plowman continued to race Morna on Sydney Harbour and his Sunday picnic sails down the Harbour to Quarantine Beach became famous among his friends. I was fortunate to be one of the regular Sunday crew on Morna in those days, a wonderful experience for a young lad from Tasmania, sailing with some of the most famous of Sydney’s yachtsmen.

She was a wonderful old boat, but her equipment was still rudimentary compared with modern big boats, with few winches and a ‘handy billy’ used to hoist the big sails.

Sir Claude insisted on picking up his mornings at Quarantine and back at Rose Bay under sail and the job of a younger crew member such as myself was to climb below the bowsprit on the bobstay to grab the mooring buoy and swing it up to the crew on deck. Sometime, Sir Claude came in a little too fast, with the crewman pulled into the water as Morna sailed past, forced to paddle until she back for another attempt!

I have a copy of a booklet ‘Extracts from the Log of Morna, Sydney – Hobart Race & Return Cruise, 26th December 1946 – 17th January 1947. Here are a few extracts from the ‘Extracts’ on Morna’s first day and final night and day at sea in 1946:

Thursday, 26 December:

'The weather the day of the race was glorious and from early morning Rose Bay was a scene of great activity with the Yacht Pier crowded with people.

Just prior to leaving for the start, a very nicely chilled bottle of champagne was produced and we all drank good luck to Morna.

We managed a perfect start. The yacht Saga broke the line ahead of us, but we immediately took the lead, which we held throughout the race.

Over the next four days Morna had mixed weather, ranging from fog on the second morning to calms and rain storms. But she enjoyed some fast spinnaker runs including closing on the Tasmanian coast under her big bowsprit spinnaker.

Tuesday, 31 December 1946:

'Shortly after 8pm the wind started to come in from the WSW and this time it looked like lasting. We sighted Tasman Light, the turning point, at 9.45pm and it was abeam at 3.17am next morning and we had to beat up the (Storm) Bay past Cape Raoul.

Having entered the Bay, the wind came from ahead and had to beat up to Hobart. We crossed the line at 7 minutes to 2 that afternoon having taken 5 days 2 hours 53 minutes for the trip.

The reception we received in Hobart was amazing. The whole town appeared to be waiting for us and as we crossed the finishing line, the firing of the finish gun was the signal for an outburst of cheering and the blowing of whistles.

We were allotted a berth in the Marine Department Dock and on tying up were boarded by hundreds of people, amongst whom were movie cameramen, press photographers and reporters.

The facilities of the town were more or less at our disposal – in short, we were granted the freedom of the city.'

Hobart’s grand reception for the line honours winner of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race has not changed much since 1946 – only the yachts, their crews and their times have changed.

In 1946 (and again in 1947 and 1948) the line honours winner was this 65-foot heavy displacement long keeled wooden boat named Morna, with canvas working sails, then 33 years old.

In 2005 (and again in 2006 and 2007) victory went to the all carbon fibre 98-footer named Wild Oats XI, launched just two years ago, with her working sails and mast also carbon fibre. Not to mention a canting keel with a bulb at the bottom.

Their times were rather different too: Morna took 5 days 2 hours 53 minutes and 33 seconds in 1946; Wild Oats XI’s finished this morning with an elapsed time of 1 day 21 hours 24 minutes and 32 seconds – a different of three days 5 hours 29 minutes and 01 seconds!

Morna placed third on corrected time in 1946, beaten on handicap by two smaller boats Christina and Saga. Wild Oats XI looks unlikely at this stage to fill a top placing overall, although in her first victory in 2005 she took line honours in record time and won the Tattersalls Cup on corrected time.

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