This year Tony Ellis will become just the second person ever to compete in 50 Sydney Hobart races when the fleet departs the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia on Boxing Day – and he will be just one Hobart shy of Tony Cable, who has raced south a record 51 times.
A half a century is a long time in any sport, yet the truth is Tony Ellis will arguably be an even more valuable member of the crew in his 50th race than he was as a strapping athlete in his first, second or even 10th Hobart. That is the unique and wonderful thing about ocean racing.
Whereas in other sports top athletes start to run out of steam in their 30s as the muscles and reaction times decline, in ocean racing every event teaches you something new about seamanship, boat handling, tactics, and the heaving ocean itself.
Brawn on the foredeck makes the boat go fast, but the brains at the back of the boat win ocean races such as the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. Just ask any Sydney 38 skipper who trailed the late, great Lou Abrahams into Constitution Dock, even when the Victorian was in his eighties.
But still, 50, that is a lot of times Ellis has bashed his way down the notorious NSW Coast, hung on grimly in a Bass Strait gale, or cursed the fickle Derwent River. What keeps bringing him back?
“The race is about so many things,” Ellis says. “It’s a real test of self – and against self too. It’s about persevering. It doesn’t matter who you are, a Syd Fischer or an Alan Bond, you have got to work together as a team. So there is a great camaraderie.
“Also, a lot of satisfaction in getting to a really nice place, Hobart, though sometimes it takes a bit longer to get there than others,’ he laughs. “You probably do need to be a bit certifiable. It is a bit of an addiction.”
Of those 49 races so far, 41 have been with Syd Fischer, an extraordinary partnership that has straddled Hobarts, Admiral’s, Clipper and Americas Cup campaigns and everything in between.
“With Syd we won one Hobart on handicap, two line honours’ and 15 or 16 podium finishes in our division. That’s a pretty good track record.”
Together they have observed, and been deeply involved in the design revolution that has transformed the sport.
“The early Admiral’s Cups and the Fastnets were a bit of a bi-annual jolly,” Ellis says, “but the modern racing machines have changed all that. They are lighter, bigger, and so much faster.
“There’s been a bit of an arms race, and it costs a lot of money. You can blow $600,000 on a maxi campaign. An expensive, hi-tech TP52 is worth nothing second hand.”
And what have become known as Formula 1 boats need formula one drivers.
“Once a 100 footer gets up to speed, the loads on the rig and the hull are massive. There is no room for a passenger. Everyone has to be really careful and respect the loads.
“Downwind they don’t surf the waves, they just sit on 28 to 34 knots like a train. I’ve always been adamant everyone should hook on somewhere where they can’t be washed overboard. You don’t want to be bumping along at 30 knots at the end of a tether. Your chances of survival are pretty slim.”
Once every boat in the fleet was a displacement boat, each was limited by its maximum hull speed, so even the biggest boats took three days to get to Hobart. Now displacement boats race against planing super-skiffs. Soon a 100 footer will get to Hobart inside 24 hours.
“They will see one weather pattern, the displacement boats two or three of them,” Ellis says. “So there are two or three race tracks. I think there is too much emphasis on the overall handicap winner. We should make more of the division winners. You have to sail well to win your division, but there is a certain amount of weather factored into which division wins the race.”
Ellis says his 49 Hobarts have tended to morph in his memory, a collage of starry summer nights skipping along in a warm breeze, freezing wet nights bashing through heartless southerlies and all those wonderful welcomes in Hobart when you do finally cross the finish line.
Of course some races stand out, especially 1993 and the horrific storm of 1998: “I remember Grant Simmer stuck his head out the hatch and asked where we could go if we had an accident. I told him we could only go to Hobart. We couldn’t turn round if we wanted to.”
So what does Tony Ellis tell young sailors just starting out in ocean racing? “Make sure you mix ocean and inshore and still sail with the small boats, because it will make you a better sailor overall, with a balanced outlook.
“But if you want to go offshore, do it reasonably early. There’s a lot to learn.”
The Boxing Day start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will be broadcast live on the Seven Network throughout Australia.
Full list of entries and all information: http://rolexsydneyhobart.com/
By Jim Gale, RSHYR media