The alarm goes at 6.30 and a group of excited but nervous crew quickly shower, have a last minute clear up of the Airbnb that has been our home over Christmas and we pack all our luggage into a couple of Ubers to take us down to the headquarters of CYCA (Cruising Yacht Club of Australia), the club that has run the famous Sydney /Hobart Race held on Boxing Day for the last 73 years!
As we arrive we spot a pop-up cafe doing a great job with egg ‘n bacon rolls, just like on any other day preparing to go out for a game of golf but this is on a totally different scale.
Today 104 boats of all sizes, from the small 36’ cruisers to the likes of the massive Formula 1 purpose built ‘Wild Oats 11’ (do Google her, it’s a great read) will be racing the 629 miles down the Eastern coast of Australia, across the infamous Bass Strait and into the Derwent River some 40 miles short of the finish line in Hobart. Those last miles will make all the difference as the winds there are notoriously fickle.
Notwithstanding the chaos that will be created by the the highly competitive flotilla of racing boats in Sydney Harbour, it is estimated that there will also be some 400-500 spectator boats milling around, being chased out of the race lane by an armada of police boats. However, despite the potential for chaos it all seems to work!
8am and time for our crew briefing and allocation of final jobs. 10am and the 13 Clipper boats slip their lines at two minute intervals. (The additional boats are the two training 68s based in Sydney now currently branded as “Invictus Games” advertising the soon to be held games here in Australia. The UK one is skippered by the boss, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston no less) competing against the Australian boat. The Ashes on water crewed by disabled servicemen and women from both countries.
Battle flags flying – HotelPlanner.com banner on the inner forestay and boom cover and some 15 other secondary sponsor flags on the outer forestay – it looks magnificent as we do our traditional line-astern “parade of sail” only this time the emotions are truly heightened not only because it is the Hobart race but also because we process past the famous Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge! Each team are in their sponsor’s uniforms and have multiple official photo calls – must remember to get a copy!
11.30am, now we have to prove our safety readiness for the race to the scrutinisers. Three reefs in the main, fly the storm jib and display the storm sail. All 104 boats must motor past a committee boat and declare their participation and number of people on board.
No hitches here so now we are officially able to participate in this stage of “the race of our lives” – the 2017 Sydney to Hobart Race!
“Time to focus” calls the skipper, shake those reefs out and get the Staysail and Yankee up. There are two start lines, one up front for the maxis, the really fast Formula 1 ones, and then our line, some 200 meters back. 80 boats are all vying for position at this line. The 10 minute gun goes and we weave in and out of the racing fleet missing each other by inches – the adrenaline is racing and we all keep quiet in nervous anticipation! The 5 minute gun is heard and we have to tack as we are very close to the edge of the racing lane, a near miss with ‘Liverpool’ but we just scrape by, was that their fault? Should we raise a protest? No, let’s just get on with it. Then the 1 minute gun seems to sound immediately, no time panic!
Suddenly the start gun goes and we are off with boats streaming across the line and on their way to Hobart.
We get into our stride and seem to be carrying out our evolutions smoothly as we manoeuvre towards the famous Sydney Heads ready to turn due south for the run down to Tasmania.
Then our heads drop, we are not getting the speed we want and go through the Heads with only some 10 boats behind us. Why are we slow again? For the next 4 hours we try our best to improve our pace but to no avail. A feeling of despondency sets in as we lumber southwards and we all keep very quiet not really knowing what to do.
Suddenly, we hear “Pan Pan” on the radio and we all look at Conall, our skipper. He replies to the call and we hear “we have a man overboard, please standby, but we think we have it under control”. Conall looks at us and says “Right guys, we know what we have to do, let’s go help”.
We have practiced this probably 25 times and the watch quietly and professionally slotted into the roles we need to undertake to get the guy out of the water. There was a total sense of calm on the deck and tasks were carried out smoothly and efficiently- thank you Clipper for great training.
The foresails were dropped, engine turned on, several crew members located the MOB and communicated the direction and distance to Conall on the helm. Another crew member was in the Nav Station documenting each step in the Log Book and was communicating with the shore agencies and the other boat from which the MOB came. Our Swimmer jumped down the companionway and quickly got into the immersion suit and harness. The scramble net was deployed and Staysail and Yankee halyards brought back to the shrouds in readiness for the swimmer. Our medical person went down to prepare for the rescue and most importantly, the kettle was put on for a cup of tea to warm him, the MOB, up again!
When we turned around we were 1.5 miles from the casualty. With 200 yards to go, the swimmer was at the shrouds securely attached to the halyard and stepped over the side ready to get into the water.
As we arrived at the MOB, Conall stopped the boat on a sixpence and the swimmer went into the water. 20 seconds later “Contact” came the cry followed within a minute by “Casualty Secured”.
From the time we heard the original Pan Pan to the time the casualty was on the deck of our boat was 14 minutes. Bl***y brilliant team mates!
Down the hatch he went, clothes off and into a warm sleeping bag, nothing seriously wrong thankfully except a few scrapes and bruises which were quickly attended to. Out came the rubber dinghy and it was quickly blown up and dropped over the side attached to 100 yards of painter. Once calm, the MOB was happy to drop into the dinghy and we let it run astern back to his own boat.
Job done, now back to the Race and interestingly enough the emotions on our boat had completely changed – we were on a high and ready to take on the world!
And that was the start of our victorious Sydney to Hobart Race!
I will tell you the rest in my next blog tomorrow.