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Hamilton Island RW: The Cowes Week of the Southern Hemisphere

by Richard Gladwell, 28 Aug 2018 20:27 PDT 29 August 2018
Wild Oats XI, Hamilton Island Race Week © Craig Greenhill / Salty Dingo/Hamilton Island Yacht Club

Hamilton Island Race Week is the largest offshore regatta in the Southern Hemisphere. This year's event attracted 233 entries from sports boats to supermaxis, racing around courses set among the 74 island jewels in the Whitsunday crown.

It's spectacular to the point of being surreal.

The water is aqua blue - like Bermuda. The air temperature pleasantly in the mid-twenties without high humidity. The breeze was multi-directional and always sufficient for sailing - except on the fortuitously scheduled mid-regatta layday.

Located 500nm north of Brisbane in the Coral Sea, the Whitsundays are unchanged since their time of discovery by Captain Cook in 1770, and for many thousands of years before that.

Comprising 74 islands, 68 of which are uninhabited, the Whitsundays are a pristine location - similar to New Zealand's Fjordland - also on the early voyaging routes in Cook's time.

With that many islands, regatta organisers have an almost unlimited choice of course options - they published over 40 in the official program and added another three during the week.

The multiplicity of course options helps ensure that Hamilton Island Race Week steps up into the top echelon of sailing regattas - where no two days are ever the same.

Ashore, the facilities are well-stated, functional and very classy - as would be expected of an area developed by sailors for sailors.

The Oatley family have done a superb job of finishing the project started by Keith Williams in 1975, investing over $500million. A dirt airstrip was upgraded to take twin-engined jets. There is plenty of accommodation ranging from beachside to the 19 floor Reef View hotel.

You can be at the yacht club or your accommodation with five minutes of exiting the airport terminal. Where else in the world can you do that?

A newly renovated Conference Centre reopened for this week's Hamilton Island Race Week and hosted the biggest prizegiving we've ever attended. It was literally packed to the gunnels.

With Rugby's Bledisloe Cup clashing with the start of the evening, the Australians were all early to arrive - while the Kiwis trickled in just before the first course was served - and with silly smirks on their faces.

You ride everywhere on Hamilton Island by golf cart, which is a lot less lethal form of transport than the motor scooters and mad driving of Bermuda. Ashore it is much more relaxed without the cars - and even with golf cart speed limited to 20km/hr - you can get anywhere in five minutes or so.

On the water, it feels similar to Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight - an eclectic mix of yachts from sports boats to production cruiser racers, IRC, 40fters, TP52's and supermaxis, with a few varieties in between. Except Hamilton Island doesn't have the sailing bedlam of the Solent-based regatta.

Both have their history - but in different ways. At Cowes, there is the legacy of man's interaction with the sea over the centuries. At Hamilton Island and the Whitsundays, you simply step back into the beginning of time. That is a very surreal sailing experience, provided you take the time to reflect and appreciate the seascape which is punctuated by the occasional whale spume or flash of their flukes.

Ashore, Hamilton Island doesn't have the history and shambling tradition of Cowes. It is a facility designed by sailors for sailors - and functions superbly. The Oatley family, their advisers and Hamilton Island CEO, Glenn Bourke - three times Laser World champion and much more - have got the balance just right.

Hamilton Island does have something that Cowes does not - whales - and lots of them.

Nic Douglass whose reports from around the world feature frequently in Sail-World, was able to achieve a Hamilton Island Race Week goal of capturing a image of a whale's fluke every day on the water. Mostly they are moving through on pairs - a mother and calf - usually heading south, but there's the occasional small school too.

Hamilton Island also has something else you won't find at Cowes - the Great Barrier Reef - which would have been an ideal destination to visit on the mid-regatta lay day.

But it's easy to be wise afterwards!

Cowes is of course legendary for the "after match" functions, as the sailing glitterati and the less so flow down the High Street stacking out the myriad of historic watering holes and similar establishments to relive the day's action and wash away the disasters.

Hamilton Island runs a full social program from the beginning to the end of the regatta. Or if you'd rather lick your wounds or brag about your brilliance, there's a string of newer than Cowes, but no less enjoyable establishments scattered around the waterfront, including pop-up cafes very conveniently placed alongside the daily prizegiving stage. The food's all great and there's plenty of it.

Another recent addition is the opening of a well stocked supermarket - allowing boats to re-stock during the regatta or for the delivery trip home, without having to make a trip back to the mainland.

Another innovation at Hamilton Island Race Week, which surprisingly is not replicated at other sailing regattas are the skin checks - with a clinic being open throughout the regatta. The statistics quoted by Glenn Bourke at the prizegiving were stunning and very sobering, with 11 confirmed melanoma from HIRW 2017’s skin checks. The clinic run by Dr Beard conducted over 800 checks and found many lesser lesions some of which were able to be treated on the spot.

The event is proud of the fact that they were one of the first to reintroduce multihull racing - which started with four boats when they first raced with the monohull fleet in 2012.

This year there were 44 multihulls - of varying hues - from the Sharon Ferris-Choat skippered Ave Gitana - along with an all-female crew - to the luxury million dollar cruising catamarans - which had a surprisingly good racing performance.

Starts and finishes are generally off the futuristic Hamilton Island Yacht Club, which like almost everything else on the island is a stunning and very functional piece of design/architecture - inside and out.

Hamilton Island Race Week started after a group of friends were shooting the breeze at the '83 America's Cup in Newport RI.

35 years on, Hamilton Island Race Week is the regatta you study closely to learn how these events should be run.

Like match racing's Congressional Cup which has been around for 20 years longer than Hamilton Island Race Week, this event has kept its character, doesn't rest on its laurels and always looks to improve.

The challenge for organisers is to keep improving the regatta without losing the gains already made. The temptation is to amp up the racing for Divisions 1, 2 and 3 at the risk losing the body of the fleet - who really make the event.

This year's regatta was even more remarkable for the lack of a naming rights sponsor. Instead, the regatta was supported by the Oatley family plus two panels of Premium Partners and Event Partners.

Coming back to the marina on the final day we did a quick assessment on the regatta and venue. It was hard to rate it less than a ten on any aspect - except maybe the weather which would always get an eight score, as there is no such thing as perfect weather.

In previous years, when the event took place in April, the wags renamed the Whitsundays as the Wetsundays, with the event being re-titled Hamilton Island Rain Week. This year there was hardly a spot of rain and mostly plenty of sun and blue skies. It's a venue in which it is hard to take a bad photo.

The supermaxi's were the highlight of the week. For Sydneysiders, with four or so supermaxis in the harbour, they might seem a bit old hat. Pre-regatta the expectation was that racing with just two supermaxis would be a bit of a procession, but that was far from the case.

Black Jack had the edge in the light, Wild Oats XI held the upper hand in the breeze, and there was a big crossover in between.

In the final race of the regatta over a 30nm windward leeward course, the two were never more than 100metres apart - which is nothing in supermaxi terms.

That, of course, begged the question as to how 100ftrs would look in the America's Cup?

The answer is very well. Their big sail areas look awesomely powerful, and the boats look as fast on the screen as they do on the water. Plus they have the majestic presence that only big yachts can achieve. Their wipeouts are as impressive as a thunderstorm - and make as much noise.

Four or five supermaxis would have been superb and really made for a top international interest event.

As mentioned the Hamilton Island Race Week compares well with Cowes Week, especially what used to be the Admirals Cup, which was sailed over a series of offshore courses (plus a few inshore using laid marks) - with countries entering teams of three boats. It is very challenging, absorbing racing in which it doesn't pay to look at the big picture - just make sure you are first to the next mark, by whatever route.

America's Cup skipper and double Olympic Gold Medalist, Iain Percy raced as tactician aboard the supermaxi Black Jack. Always sharply-focused you know that when you see Percy's distinctive figure on the helm or just alongside it, that they are playing for keeps. Sailors like Percy don't know how to do it any other way.

"I'm used to going around marks and not islands," he said. "So there is a bit of a trade-off. The marks are easier, but the islands are far more beautiful, that's for sure.

"Having to avoid whales and all the tidal issues has been a totally new experience and a wonderful one. It has been very new for me, and we have a great bunch of people on board and we're enjoying ourselves a lot on Black Jack.

"Like any time you are doing something new, it's great fun. But when you are sailing around those stunning tropical islands, it ticks all the boxes."

Wild Oats XI navigator, Juan Vila fresh from MAPFRE in the Volvo Ocean Race and enjoying his second sailing sojourn at Hamilton Island Race Week, compared the race area to Sardinia. "It is lovely sailing here. You have a nice currents here and it is quite challenging for a navigator, you have to watch your depth, watch your wind and your wind shadow. It is a very nice coast to be racing around. It is just great to be here again and sail in these waters"

With the towering islands being used as rounding marks at Hamilton Island, the racing has a much tighter, leg by leg focus.

The disadvantage for the leader is that while they may have clean air for sailing, they have the disadvantage of having to negotiate the wind-shadows to leeward of each island - rounding mark or not. Of course, they have to do that in full view of the trailing boats - who may be able to use the leader's error to pick a better way through the softer breeze.

Despite having a tidal range of only three metres, the Whitsundays are dotted with tidal races, sufficient to generate whitewater with the overfalls - adding another dimension to the tactical considerations.

The bigger boats were laced with top crews from the America's Cup, Olympics, Volvo Ocean Race and the like. They put a credible edge and intensity into the racing.

The Australian offshore fleet is impressive with some very good boats that are well campaigned and sailed, and with few crewing errors. It was impressive to see several owners who had been around the offshore scene for many years continuing to buy new boats and continue to invest in the sport.

The bulk of the regatta entries are made up with various production boats competing with amateur crews, and again being sailed to a good standard without a lot of errors. As with all regattas of this type, there are always races within races - boats of the same class, or similar rating or size. You are never alone.

Obviously, organisers would like to see more entries, provided there is the marina capacity to spare. The logical place to pull them across from New Zealand - with Sharon Ferris-Choat sailing the 40ft Ave Gitana across from New Zealand, by way of New Caledonia. And she'll sail her home two-handed with Melbourne to Osaka skipper Jo Breen (AUS), plus Betsy the autopilot.

Miss Scarlet was another New Zealand boat, having come by the same route as Ave Gitana, competing in the Auckland Noumea Race, and was then first home in the Cercle Nautique Caledonien Groupama Race.

Next year more entries are expected with a Brisbane to Hamilton Island feeder race being announced in the opening of the 2018 Hamilton Island Race Week. The fact that there are several other regattas around the Whitsundays well scheduled before and after Hamilton Island Race Week gives the opportunity for more racing, plus cruising in a top location.

However when Sharon Ferris-Choat was asked, from a New Zealand perspective, as to how more international boats could be attracted to Hamilton Island Race Week.

"I would be pretty pleased if 230 boats turned up to my regatta", was her first reaction

"There needs to be more feeder races - we came from New Caledonia - buy also from different parts of Australia, and not just from Brisbane.

"This is an Australia regatta and there's a lot of good Australian people here. They are all having fun. They might not want a whole lot of foreigners.

"Just come - you just have to come to Hamilton Island - it is just sensational", was her parting comment.

"It's been fantastic",said Rob Greenhalgh racing on the TP52 Ichi Ban. "It's been a great place to race, boat on boat."

"There is so much going on. We got dropped at the start, but caught up to Hooligan by the turning mark and then had this amazing race back and for the last hour they were separated by 5secs."

Despite Hamilton Island being the biggest offshore regatta in the Southern Hemisphere, the target is to get back to the all-time record of 250 entries set a couple of years ago - while improving what is already an outstanding regatta.

And of course, to have more fun than last year.

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