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INTO THE STORMLessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race
By DENNIS N.T. PERKINS JILLIAN B. MURPHY
AMACOMCopyright © 2013 Dennis N.T. Perkins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Everest of Ocean Racing
This has the reputation of being the toughest race in the world, and it is. It's considered to be the Everest of sailing and no race is more difficult on men or the boats.
—George Snow, Owner and Skipper, Brindabella
For those unfamiliar with ocean races, they may all seem pretty much like the one described in a satirical article published in The Onion.
Emblazoned with the title "Rich Guy Wins Yacht Race," the piece features a photo of a smiling, self-satisfied sailor with a caption reading "The rich guy who defeated an estimated 75 other rich guys in Monday's Regatta."
Some sailing races do, in fact, fit the stereotype. There are some races—such as the America's Cup—that really do cater to rich guys, because it takes a lot of money to build the boats and find the sailors capable of winning the competition.
The America's Cup originated in 1851 with a race between the schooner America and seventeen British boats. It is still governed by pretty much the same rules that applied when America first brought home the trophy. The winner of the cup picks the race venue, and challengers engage in a survival-of-the-fittest process until one boat remains to take on the winner.
Though the America's Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy in the world, only a wealthy person could ever hope to claim it. The expenses are enormous. Marketing, salaries for champion sailors, research and development, and boat construction require millions of dollars. Many, many millions of dollars.
A single sail can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the contest doesn't always take place on the water. The 2007 race set off a bitter legal battle between billionaires Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli, two of the richest men on the planet. Bertarelli, a biotech heir, took home the cup, but Ellison was unhappy with the winner's proposed rules for the next race. Thus ensued a nearly three-year court battle that had many race enthusiasts shaking their heads.
While the America's Cup may be the iconic race for many people, not every ocean race is a rich guy's sport. The Rolex Fastnet Race, for example, is a different kind of competition. Held in the United Kingdom, the Fastnet is a challenging technical race covering 608 nautical miles. The race begins in Cowes, on the southern coast of En gland, rounds the Fastnet Rock off the southwest of Ireland, and finishes at Plymouth in the south of En gland.
The rules of the classic Fastnet Race are different than those of the America's Cup, and it doesn't take the same level of wealth to compete. That's because the Fastnet Challenge Cup is awarded to the overall winner based on corrected time. Each boat is given a handicap based on a mathematical calculation of its potential speed, and the boat with the best corrected time based on its handicap is the winner.
Of course, there will always be a boat that makes it over the finish line first. Winning line honors is not an insignificant accomplishment, and sailors compete to be first. But winning line honors is different than being the overall winner.
Like the America's Cup, the first boat to finish will undoubtedly be an expensive boat with the latest technology. Anyone with enough money to build a state-of-the-art boat and hire a world-class crew has a chance at being first across the line. Enough money, perhaps, and maybe enough Dramamine. But the handicap system of the Fastnet levels the playing field, and it gives great sailors on smaller boats a chance to take home the Challenge Cup.
The Fastnet is a tough race. It also gained a worldwide reputation for being a dangerous race when, in 1979, 303 yachts were hit by 60-knot winds. The unexpected storm slammed into the fleet, bringing 40-foot waves that smashed into boats and sailors, ultimately claiming fifteen lives.
The Fastnet is a demanding race that's not just for rich guys. It takes skill to win, and it can be a treacherous undertaking. But there is another race that's not just for the wealthy. It is a race that many call the Everest of ocean racing. That event is the Sydney to Hobart Race.
The Sydney to Hobart Race
The Sydney to Hobart Race may not be widely known throughout the world, but most Australians are familiar with "the Hobart," and many are at least acquainted with its history. In 1945, Peter Luke and several Australian sailing enthusiasts who had formed the Cruising Yacht Club invited Captain John Illingworth, a visiting British Naval Officer stationed in Sydney, to accompany them on a cruise to Hobart. Illingworth thought it was a superb idea but persuaded them to make the cruise a race, and so the Sydney to Hobart was born.
The Sydney to Hobart soon became an annual event. It was exciting and could be dangerous. The Sydney to Hobart soon took its place alongside En gland's Fastnet and America's Newport to Bermuda as one of the three "majors" in off shore racing. All three events demand the highest skill and endurance no matter what the conditions. Australians come out in the hundreds of thousands to watch the start in Sydney Harbour, and sailors throughout the world watch for news of the race with great anticipation. As one newspaper put it, "It's a disease, not a yacht race."
How Ocean Races Are Classified
Ocean races are classified by categories that calibrate them according to the degree of difficulty. The most challenging are Category 0 races, defined as:
Trans-oceanic races, including races which pass through areas in which air or sea temperatures are likely to be less than 5°C other than temporarily, where yachts must be completely self-sufficient for very extended periods of time, capable of withstanding heavy storms and prepared to meet serious emergencies without the expectation of outside assistance.
The Volvo Ocean Race is a Category 0 race. Although the route may vary, boats sail some 37,000 miles through some of the world's most treacherous seas. Crews have no fresh food and take only one change of clothes. It is not for the fainthearted.
Neither is the Sydney to Hobart Race, which is a Category 1 competition. It is not considered transoceanic, and temperatures are not below 5°C "except temporarily," but it is long distance and well off shore. The rest of the description is precisely the same as a Category 0 race. Category 1 competitions include:
Races of long distance and well off shore, where yachts must be completely self-sufficient for extended periods of time, capable of withstanding heavy storms and prepared to meet serious emergencies without the expectation of outside assistance.
A race like the Fastnet is a tough, demanding race, and it can be perilous. Some believe it is the most technically demanding race in the world. But it is a Category 2 race, held "along or not far removed from shorelines or in large unprotected bays or lakes ..." A high degree of self-sufficiency is required of the yachts, but it is different than an off shore race in which boats have to be prepared to deal with serious problems with no outside help.
The Race Track
The path of the 628-mile Sydney to Hobart Race runs from its start line in Sydney Harbour to the finish line in Hobart, Tasmania. As I discovered, the race really ends in one of the many drinking establishments in Hobart—most particularly, The Shipwright's Arms.
The rhumb line—the most direct path, having nothing to do with alcohol—angles down the eastern coast of Australia and crosses the Bass Strait, a body of open water that separates the continent of Australia from the island of Tasmania.
Many people are familiar with Tasmania only because of the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil. But there is more to this island than the cantankerous, spinning cartoon character. The island is noted for its wines and is an attractive destination for vacationers. Hobart, Tasmania's capital, is a lovely, scenic spot. It's easy to get to Tasmania by airplane but not so easy by boat.
Sailors traveling south can take advantage of the East Australian Current—an ocean current that moves warm water down the coast of Australia. Some Americans are likely to have heard of the current only because of Finding Nemo. In the Disney/Pixar film, fish and sea turtles use the current as a highway to rescue Nemo, and ocean racers can take advantage of the current's movement in much the same way. Although the current can flow as fast as about 7 knots, it provides only a 2-to 3-knot advantage in most races. But 2 to 3 knots is a huge benefit in sailing, and skilled navigators carefully calculate the gains of sailing east to catch the current against the alternative of hugging the coast.
As sailors pass the southeast tip of Australia marked by Gabo Island, they enter the notorious Bass Strait. Named for the surgeon-explorer George Bass, the reputation of this dangerous stretch of water is created by three different forces of nature. First, the East Australian Current creates a vortex in the Tasman Sea separating Australia from Tasmania. The water of the East Australian Current collides with the West Wind Drift.
The second factor is the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the largest of ocean currents, driven by strong westerly winds from the Southern Ocean that begin at a latitude of about 40°. Because there is little land to blunt the force of the air, the Roaring Forties in the Southern Ocean are fierce and have a well-deserved reputation for being turbulent.
Both of these forces make the Bass Strait's 130-mile stretch of water formidable, but there is a third feature that makes the conditions truly unique. The Bass Strait is shallow, and big waves from the Southern Ocean plow into the strait, like waves hitting the beach. These waves move quickly from a depth of 3,280 feet to around 150 feet, and the bottom of the wave slows dramatically. The result can be a maelstrom of flat back waves that create a dangerous cocktail for sailors. Each year, racers feel the anticipation of leaving the safety of the Australian mainland and dashing across the strait.
Those who make it to Flinders Island encounter the third leg of the race down the East Coast of Tasmania. They're closer to shore, but anything can happen with the wind. It can be cold, I discovered, because you are sailing toward Antarctica. It is unpredictable, and the wind can be fickle. Boats have the relative safety of land, but they can fall into a "hole" and be slowed to a near halt by heavy air. Or they can be propelled like a rocket, all depending on the whim of Huey—the Australian weather god.
In the final stretch, sailors are treated to the stunning sight of the Tasmanian Organ Pipes—columns of dolomite stone that do indeed look like the pipes of a giant organ. And then there's the hard right turn into Storm Bay and up the Derwent River.
The Derwent. Safety. The race is almost over. But it's far from finished. Now the wind gets even more temperamental, and sailors who have their eyes set on the Tattersall's trophy know that their fate can be determined in the last few hours of the home stretch. They can see the lights of Hobart in the distance as they pass the famous lighthouse called the Iron Pot. But seeing the lights of Hobart is not the same as crossing the finish line.
All sailors know the times they need to win and where their archrivals are located. Tensions rise at the end as sailors will their boats across the finish line, trying to pick exactly the right sail to match each gust of wind. In a long race, in theory, no mile is more important than any other mile. But it doesn't seem that way to a crew in contention to become the overall winner of the race. Minutes can crawl like hours as the boats edge toward the finish line near Battery Point.
Crossing the finish line brings a sense of accomplishment and success, but crews are tired, sleep deprived, and physically exhausted. Gear must be stowed and the boat squared away, but those mundane tasks are often accompanied by cases of beer brought aboard by friends and family.
From the beginning, the Sydney to Hobart Race has always had an Overall Handicap Winner. Like the Fastnet, each boat is given a handicap rating based on a calculation of its estimated potential performance. The boat's actual time is multiplied by its handicap number to produce a corrected time. For example, if a boat took two days to complete the race and its handicap was 1.5, the corrected time would be three days. The boat with the best corrected time is the Overall Winner.
Mark Richards—skipper of Wild Oats, a boat that has won both line honors and overall—shares a view held by many sailors: "It's a bigger thrill for a boat to win on handicap than to get line honors. Line honors ... is between four or five boats, really. Handicap is between the whole fleet ... From the sailor's point of view, that is the real trophy, to win the Tattersall's Cup."
The Tattersall's trophy—more formally known as the George Adams Tattersall's Cup—has been presented to the overall winner of the Sydney to Hobart Race ever since the second contest in 1946. The name of the original race winner in 1945, Rani, was later engraved on the trophy.
The Tattersall's trophy, designed by an Australian silversmith, is a beautifully ornate trophy adorned with mermaids and sea horses. At its top is a mermaid on the crest of a wave calling up the winner. After the presentation ceremony, the Tattersall's Cup is held in a place of honor in the trophy cabinet at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA).
In addition to having the names of their boats engraved on the Tattersall's Cup, half models of the overall winners are placed on the wall of the CYCA Members' Bar. These models show the distinctive hull, keel, and rudder shapes over the years. They provide a visual history showing the evolution of ocean racing yacht design.
History aside, having models of their boats memorialized means something more personal: The overall winners of the Sydney to Hobart Race can look up at the wall of the CYCA and see a symbol of their victory in the Everest of ocean racing.
Because the Tattersall's Cup is awarded on the basis of a handicap, the race is a democratic contest. It is open to anyone who owns a boat that meets the safety requirements for a Category 1 race. In the early years of the competition, this often meant boats that were primarily designed for cruising. As the race became more popular, however, boats became faster and relied more on high technology, including Kevlar and carbon sails and carbon fiber masts.
The sailors who cross the starting line in Sydney are even more diverse than the boats they sail on. Some are millionaires, but many are blue-collar workers. Some are serious and dedicated amateurs. Others are consummate professionals who make their living by racing. They're essentially professional athletes who are very, very good at what they do.
Among the professionals, there are also individual sailors often referred to as rock stars. These are crew members who have developed a reputation as champion sailors in high-visibility events—at the Olympics, for example—and are recruited because of their special and unique abilities.
Though they are outstanding sailors, the term is often used pejoratively. Rock stars frequently have little interest in working as members of a team. As the term implies, they want to stand out, to be unique, and to express their opinions loudly. And they're sometimes given special privileges in jewel positions. As a result, rock stars make unique contributions, but their personalities and privileges can disrupt the functioning of a team.
Excerpted from INTO THE STORM by DENNIS N.T. PERKINS JILLIAN B. MURPHY Copyright © 2013 by Dennis N.T. Perkins. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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