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Wouter Verbraak explains Alive's winning moves in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2018

by Crosbie Lorimer 2 Jan 2019 14:49 PST
Wouter Verbraak is presented his winning crew medal by Tasmanian Premier, Will Hodgman © Crosbie Lorimer

When the media throng descends on a winning skipper as the yacht berths, to ask how they feel and how the race went, you can usually make an uninterrupted beeline for the navigator. Foremost amongst the crew, they will give you the inside insights into what really happened down the track, because it is frequently with them and the calls that they make where the race is won or lost.

While the team must sail the boat and the tactician calls boat-on-boat strategy the role of a navigator is not one that can be readily shared. It is by its nature a rather solitary and at times very stressful occupation; get it wrong and you can do more than lose a race, you can put lives at risk.

So with that much pressure on their backs you might have thought that most navigators would be thick-skinned and taciturn types; but to a person the navigators Ive had the pleasure to interview - including such greats as Juan Vila, Tom Addis, Stan Honey, Adrienne Cahalan are in equal measure thoughtful, modest, self-effacing and generous people.

Approaching the dock when the winning boat is berthing you can almost spot the navigator; theyll be the other side of the boat from the dock - happy for others to take the limelight - their shoulders at last relaxing, as much relieved as they are elated that the plan came good.

And the sheer relief of winning is understandable, because for all the huge advances in weather modelling the wind gods remain elusive and capricious characters; so for any ocean going navigator the line between being a rooster one day and a feather duster the next is a fine one indeed.

Any Volvo Ocean Race navigator will tell you just how precarious that knife edge can be, not least Dutchman Wouter Verbraak, who, in the middle of an extraordinarily successful career as a navigator and meteorologist Americas Cup, Admirals Cup, Middle Sea Race ,TP52s, Barcelona World Race, the list goes on - suddenly came into worldwide focus as the navigator of the Volvo yacht Team Vestas, which was wrecked on a reef in the Indian Ocean during the 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race

It speaks volumes of Verbraaks character that a dramatic incident, which might have destroyed the career of another, led him to take immediate responsibility and to win admiration for sharing what he learnt from those events through his book Beyond The Break.

Verbraak clearly had a mind for the intricacies required of a meteorologist and navigator from a young age,

When I was 13 years old, I was fascinated by Equity& Law II which was racing in the Whitbread Round the World Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race). The boat was old, and the team was operating on a shoestring budget, but....in the last leg their navigator, and my big hero Marcel van Triest, took a rather unconventional course, taking advantage of a small low-pressure system and won the leg. That was it, I decided there and then that I wanted to become a navigator in the round the world race.

He is no stranger to winning campaigns in the Sydney Hobart race either, as he was aboard Nicorette, the Line honours winner in 2000. So it should have been no great surprise to see him as the navigator aboard Phillip Turners RP 66 Alive, the winner of the 2018 Tattersalls Cup for overall handicap on IRC.

It was a below-the-radar win on many fronts for Alive; she was the first Tasmanian Yacht since 1979 to win this trophy and when she arrived in Hobart minutes ahead of her nearest rival Wild Oats X (skippered by Stacey Jackson) the media descended on the latter en masse, leaving Alive with a very low-key reception.

Verbraak, who lives in the UK, had just enough time to collect his crew medal in Hobart at the presentation ceremony before making a dash to the airport, so the following is his description of how he called the moves on the race, taken from a very brief phone call at the airport!

Its a great pro/am mix aboard Alive said Verbraak who was also navigator aboard the yacht at Hamilton Island Race Week in 2018, and its been a three year long project to this point he adds of Alives sailing campaign in Australia and Asia since Phillip Turner bought the former Black Jack.

There were three parts to this years race for me; the first was the strong downwind run over the first 12 hours. Thats all about teamwork to get south as far as possible, so the navigator is not really crucial in that phase. We chose an inside track which gave us a small advantage.

The second part was the light wind transition in Bass Strait. Our goal was to get through this phase to the new north westerly as efficiently as possible.

That required us to time three phases very carefully, first eastward, then southward and finally westward; the timing of each move was crucial.

The first move eastward was to get around the curvature of the high-pressure system in the east and from there the objective was to get south as quickly as possible before turning west. This last move westward was to counter the influences of the heatwave high over Adelaide.

If that complex strategy suggests that this plan would have required something more than the collective experience of years of meteorology from around the world some local knowledge perhaps? - then that assumption would be correct.

I was fortunate enough to study my Masters of Meteorology at UNSW in Sydney and I followed that up with a year as an intern at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in 2000, the year of the Sydney Olympics; I also sailed in the Sydney Hobart Race that year aboard Nicorette explained Verbraak, modestly omitting that he was aboard the Line Honours winner.

The final part of the race was all about sticking with their close rival Wild Oats X with its highly credentialed crew. Luck will always play some part in this race and for the Wild Oats X crew that came up short early in the race, blowing out of their vital A2 spinnaker on the first night.

For all that, both boats approached Tasman Light neck and neck. With a lower IRC rating than Wild Oats X, Alive had only to stay ahead of her rival to beat her on handicap, which in the end she did with some comfort, drawing out a small lead across Storm Bay and up the Derwent River, to take the clubhouse leader position, moored up at Kings Pier with one hand on the Tattersalls Trophy.

And then the nervous wait to see if she could be beaten. That night the Derwent River closedown put paid to the favoured Ichi Bans chances and as the following day progressed even the well-rated IOR small boats halfway down the Tasmanian east coast soon started slipping down the standings and out of contention.

Alive had won and Verbraak was pleased to put that up there with some of his proudest achievements,

The Sydney Hobart Race is one of probably 12 ocean races around the world that you could consider make up the Grand Slam of yachting; and theyre all hard to win. So to be part of this Grand Slam win is just great said Verbraak as he signed off to board his plane.

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