The 70th Sydney to Hobart race has been one of the most exciting Hobarts so far with two maxis fighting for line honours and the rest of the fleet travelling so close together that a handicap win seems possible for just about anyone. Anyone, that is, who is still in the race.
I was part of this race for two and a half hours.
We started with a reef in our main, white caps all around us, harbour boiling with life, news helicopters over our heads. The media is mostly interested in the northern start line where super maxis tussle with each other. Comanche, an American newcomer, was first to leave the harbour this year, and in a few hours we will know whether Wild Oats XI gets their 8th line honours in a row. No matter what happens, there will be plenty of excitement about that finish.
Meanwhile, there were two more start lines with smaller, slower boats that didn’t star in any of the media photos. Most of them don’t have corporate sponsorships or rock star professional sailors. They – or should I say we – still invest a lot of time and effort into being in the race.
During any event like that there are always people who grumble that tax payer money should not be wasted on saving sailors who participate in dangerous races. Such comments come from people who have no idea about safety requirements for races like that. There are safety inspections and safety courses for survival at sea; first aid courses and experience requirements. And of course there are hours of training for everyone who want to do well in the race. So if you are doing Sydney to Hobart, chances are, your entire year will revolve around this race.
It might not be true for everyone but it was definitely true for us. “Bear Necessity” changed owners earlier this year and since then work on the boat never really stopped. John, the new owner, bought new sails and a life raft, replaced part of the standing rigging, replaced all sheets, braces and halyards. We did all blue water races leading to S2H and harbour races in between. There were safety inspections, frustrations and arguments, anticipation and doubts, crew changes and preparations, and whatever happened, there was an ultimate goal – completing the Sydney to Hobart race, a first for all but two crew members.
It looked well for us for a while. “Bear” loves a bit of wind, and we were second over the start line, despite an unnamed competitor who tried to force us down and ignored our polite requests to stay up. We decided against shaking the reef out for the short reach in the lee and soon enough we were out of the harbour beating into choppy seas. The crew on the rail was doused with water every two minutes, sunscreen washed off our faces. The breeze kept growing, we put the second reef in and got back on the rail. We were doing well.
But there was trouble brewing at the back of the boat. The helm started behaving erratically. I wasn’t aware of that for a while until I heard a call for a screwdriver. Too soon after that John called us all back into the pit and said, “Look, I am sorry but we cannot go to Hobart. The rudder bearing is about to go, we’ll lose control of the boat.”
We bore away and dropped the headsail, stunned. Then started the motor. The race was over for us, two and a half hours into it.
As we were motoring back in, we surfed the waves that were now behind us and listened to the helicopters above us. We made the news but for all the wrong reasons. I thought about all the people who wished me luck for my first Hobart, about a pharmacist who wrote the name of our boat on his wrist to look us up on the tracker, my colleagues, my family and friends. My phone was still off but once I turned it back on, it started overflowing with messages of support. I’ve been told stories of people who did not complete Hobart until their 4th or even 7th attempt; stories of seasick boat owners and ripped kites. A friend of mine sent me an itinerary for Tasmania to make sure that I don’t just go home and mope for the rest of the year, devastated. I am extremely grateful for all the support.
7 more boats had to abandon the race on that first day, including the “people’s maxi”, Brindabella, that had a very similar damage to ours. I knew that my mate on Brindas would probably be even more upset than me.
Whatever the situation is, someone will always say that everything happens for a reason, that perhaps it’s for the best. I hope to find a lesson in whatever happens. Yet I also know that we are looking for meaning in everything just because it’s easier to live that way. We need to think that life makes sense on some level, we add structure to pure randomness, we fight chaos. The thing is, the rudder bearing damage was totally random. It wasn’t that typical, there was no reason to look for it specifically. It was just one of these things that could not be predicted. Shit happens and it did happen this time. We abandoned the race before the damage to the boat became dangerous to the crew.
I was planning to decide whether I liked offshore sailing enough to go on after this race. Should I just concentrate on racing my own boat inshore, plane under a kite instead of fighting off fatigue offshore at three in the morning? Do I like long offshore races that much? I am still not entirely sure. What I definitely know is that I have an unfinished business now. I am following the tracker obsessively, wishing all my mates luck in the race (one of them managed to crack a couple of ribs on the first day!), and I wish with all my heart that I was still racing against them.
Sydney to Hobart 2015, here I come. 363 days to go.