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Rolex Sydney Hobart - The Weather Gate

by John Curnow on 25 Dec 2016
Wild Rose - 2015 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race Rolex / StudioBorlenghi / Stefano Gattini
In order to win the iconic Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race under IRC or ORCi rating, there are three things you absolutely need to have accomplished. Two of these you can certainly 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 vessel 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. Night time is where the big gains can be made on your opposition, or in the case of some fierce combatants, the times of which epic battle stories that last a lifetime are forged.

Finally, you have to hope that Huey, the God of Wind, allows your division to get the correct weather window that will allow you to proceed at the 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.

So then, what you have when looking at trackers, out will come computer driven predictions for the 628 mile Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. These are based on the vessels’ ratings, which take into account things like their age, size mass, and hull form. What the computer kind of ignores is the fact that most races are won and lost in the last 40 miles from Tasman Light, then across Storm Bay, up past the Iron Pot, and into the River Derwent proper to make Battery Point.

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.

In lightish weather, this number is the ETA. Turn Tasman Light at 2000hrs, 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 71 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 it was backwards!

You see Huey 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 an overall winner, which is most easily done when all the boats are tied up in Constitution Dock.
Early afternoon is an excellent time to finish. The 2008 Tattersall’s Cup (IRC overall) winner, Bob Steel's TP52 ‘Quest’ (now defending champion Balance), finished a wee tad after 1400hrs. In 2010, Geoff Boettcher's Reichel-Pugh 51, Secret Men’s Business 3.5 (now racing as Primitive Cool), finished at an almost perfect time - 1342hrs.

Of course there are weather gate exceptions if there is sufficient gradient breeze. The 2013 Tattersall's Cup winner, Darryl Hodgkingson's Cookson 50 ‘Victoire’ (also now racing, but with a new owner), finished at 0800hrs and the 2014 winner, the late Roger Hickman’s 43-footer, Wild Rose, finished at 2000hrs, after the passage of a heavy Southerly change had her reaching across Storm Bay at speed.

Note however, that if conditions lighten off, then the Weather Gate will rule. 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 also winds up the smokers 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 James Boags or Cascades, and do what the River Derwent does – shut the gate and go to sleep!

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