Ed Psaltis to have one last Midnight Ramble in Sydney-Hobart

After 33 races to Hobart, Ed Psaltis is going to call it quits after just one more; this 70th anniversary race will be his last. 

One of the most respected, uber-competitive sailors at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, one time holder of its proudest trophy, the Tattersall's Cup, Ed is hanging up his sea boots.  Yet as one Psaltis retires from racing, a new generation emerges. Ed’s son, Ben, will be cutting the first notch in his Rolex Sydney Hobart belt. 

Ed did his first Hobart in 1979, when he was just 18, on the foredeck of father Bill’s S&S 46 Meltemi. This is the minimum age you can do the race these days, but back then things were more relaxed. 

Ed was chafing at the bit since he was 16, however, his father would not let him. “Dad was before his time, but he was absolutely right,” Psaltis says. “When you’re a kid you’re ten feet tall and bulletproof. I thought I was up to it, but it was a hard race. The Dacron racing jibs weighed a ton and I certainly learned about changing sails in a bad sea.”

Ed credits Bill with teaching him the practical seamanship skills that have become a religion to him. “The stuff he taught you couldn’t get in text books. You just have to get out there and do it. Safety isn’t all certificates and qualifications, it’s seamanship. And the only way to learn seamanship is time at sea in bad weather.

“We had weather forecasts about southerly changes coming, but the barometer we always used was the old man’s false teeth. He had a glass no-one was allowed to touch. The way to know if it was going to blow hard was if his teeth were sitting in the glass. If the glass was empty, we knew it wouldn’t be too bad. He used to get seasick and didn’t want to spew them out.” 

There was an inevitability to all this. Bill Psaltis was twice commodore of the CYCA. He had been instrumental in the club’s first campaigns for the Admiral’s Cup and established the Southern Cross Cup as a genuine international contest when he talked the Brits into bringing over their first team. 

“I’ve been around this club since I was two months old,” Ed recalls. “I loved sailing. I loved the Hobart.”

Ed loved the challenge and the adventure. His favourite reading was by mountain climbers and explorers. Like his father, Ed is a successful, be-suited accountant. However, come the weekend, it is all about sailing.

He graduated from the big, powerful Meltemi to racing his own puny 30 footer across Bass Strait; a crazy proposition for anyone not blessed with the immortality of the 20 year old male. And in 1998, the most horrific Sydney Hobart in history, Ed Psaltis won, at the helm of AFR Midnight Rambler, a little Hick 35. 

“We were within 20 miles of Sword of Orion and Winston Churchill. Our radio had broken so we didn’t know what was happening; we just sailed on. Not racing – just surviving. They pulled away, as you would, and headed towards New Zealand, but as it happened, the Low kept going east with them,” Ed remembers. “We had to keep high into the waves, still heading south, because in a 35 foot boat we would have been rolled if we’d taken these huge waves on the side.  So we broke through it faster than most.”

The radio was back working when they reached Tasman Island, so Ed knew they were in the lead. Exhausted after 10 hours of the most atrocious conditions, they turned into the Derwent River, where it was windless. At times, as they bobbed about, they thought they would not reach Hobart in time.  But a few puffs finally got them across the line.

Most of that 1998 crew will be with Ed again this time, as they have been for years. “We were certainly bonded together after that,” he says.

The latest Midnight Rambler incarnation, St George Midnight Rambler, a lightweight, beamy Ker 40 IRC speedster, is a far cry from the heavy Meltemi, and the little Hick for that matter. 

“She is a great boat to sail. Dynamic downwind, so much fun, but these IRC boats are brutal. Meltemi used to surge through waves, this boat goes bang. There’s lots of crashing and banging going on, it rattles your bones and you can’t sleep. You have to be on the rail a lot of the time. If I was sailing Meltemi now I could be a lot less fit,” Ed says.

“We have some young guys, but I’ve got a crew that is aging. We’ve been together many years. Just doing stuff around the boat you’ve got to be nimble. My knees are buggered.”

In a lot of ways, ironically, this faster, more dynamic Midnight Rambler also makes it harder to win the Rolex Sydney Hobart than has perhaps has been the case in past years. And make no mistake, Ed Psaltis is only ever in it to win it. It is a matter of simple boat speed and mathematics.

To get across Storm Bay and up the Derwent River before it shuts down, you need to get to Tasman Island not much after midday and, while the 50 and 60 footers can manage this, by the time a quick 40 footer gets there the day is wearing on. 

Paradoxically, the slower Beneteau 40 and 45 foot cruiser/racers are more likely to hit that Tasman Island window a day later. Ed can’t afford a 50 footer and isn’t a cruiser/racer kind of guy.

“At its best, the old IOR rule did create fairer racing,” he says. “In its later stages the rule went downhill (as designers gamed the rule) leading to bad boats that rated better. IRC boats sail better, but we take three to four days to get to Hobart, where Wild Oats XI takes a day and a half, so they are in a completely different race to us. 

“You can’t handicap such disparate boat speeds. In the old IOR days, the big aluminium maxis would finish maybe only 60 or 70 miles ahead of the mid-sized boats.  We were all pretty much on the same ocean. But while the overall race is more difficult, at the divisional end it is still very competitive.”

Once again Psaltis will line up against old foes like Bruce Taylor on Chutzpah, who Psaltis bought the ’98 winning Hick 35 from.

“One of the reasons we’ve kept racing is guys like Bruce,” Psaltis says, “and the Tow Truck boys on Occasional Coarse Language 2 (Anthony Paterson and Brett Filby, the Lake Macquarie larrikins who fist raced to Hobart on the overblown dinghy Towtruck). 

“We have to beat those guys.  We haven’t won our division for a number of years. If we do that, and if Huey (the weather god) is kind, the rest might come.”

Psaltis will savour this last race, not least because his 18 year-old son, Ben, will be on the foredeck of St George Midnight Rambler for his first Rolex Sydney Hobart.

“He’s having a great time. Working with men he looks up to; great role models. It’s good for young kids, it was good for me, it gave me confidence beyond sailing.

“I am closer to Ben now than I have ever been, just as I was with Dad. I did three Hobarts on Meltemi and I was closer to him than ever during those three years,” says Ed, who has to brothers who also sail yachts.

Ed thinks Ben will do more than one Hobart. “He says he wants to buy good wet weather gear which is a sure sign.”

So for the second time in the race’s 70 years, a Psaltis is infecting the next generation with the Boxing Day virus – and Ben may not be alone.

Quitting ocean racing will free up time for Ed to spend with his family. He will teach 13 year-old daughter Amy how to sail Manly Juniors. And with so many women in the sport these days, who knows. He did not push Ben, who came to sailing late.  He will not push Amy either, although he would be tickled pink if she took up the sport.

“If that’s how it works out, then like their father, they will sail in the wake of a man with a big reputation in Australian ocean racing.

“One year, 1999 it was, we came in on the Hick 35. We were rounding the Iron Pot and there was a bloke fishing in a tinny. He yelled out: ‘Bill reckons you’re three hours behind where you should be’. Four days and the first guy you see says this!  I don’t know if it was a set-up, if Bill rang him, of if he was just taking the mickey.

 I loved the satisfaction of surviving a gale and doing better than the other boats, when we did do better. Sometimes we didn’t. I’ll go to my grave with the mates I sail with.

“The hard times – the good times. That first race, we had a spinnaker and a blooper up and Meltemi was charging along.  We had a big albatross circling around us for hours. You never forget that.”

The start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will be broadcast live on the Seven Network throughout Australia and webcast live to a global audience on Yahoo!7.

Entries in the Rolex Sydney Hobart 2014 close on Friday 31 October 2014 at 1700hrs AEDT.

By Jim Gale, RSHYR media 

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