Ocean racing: Family set for Osaka

Ocean racing

Family set for Osaka

A father and son building duo from Yamba on the NSW north coast are set to contest their first major ocean race together, reports Di Pearson, when the 2007 Melbourne Osaka double-handed yacht race starts in March on Port Phillip Bay.

Jim O’Keeffe and his son, Joe, are not your regular offshore racing yachties, but both are good sailors. Nor do they live near any major boating clubs, and living in Yamba are fairly secluded from any of the other entrants in the race.
Jim purchased the male mould of an Adams 13 some years ago, and says: ‘My mate Jim Gannon helped me build the hull originally. The rest of the yacht doesn’t resemble an Adams 13 at all.’

The boat has a stubby bulbed centreboard keel, specifically designed for the race, and Jim added strengthening to the interior of the fibreglass hull ‘to beef up the boat a bit’. Hullabaloo was launched in 1994, and took Jim eight years to re-build in his backyard shed at home.

Entered into Racer B division for the Melbourne-Osaka, Jim says the modifications have increased the yacht’s speed and stability.

North Sails in Sydney is building the O’Keeffes a new Kevlar mainsail, a No. 2 headsail, a Code 0 and an asymmetrical spinnaker, all ordered for the race. ‘We looked like having to come to Sydney to work out the sails, but Alby Pratt rang to say he had to come up our way, so we were fortunate to have him come and sort it out in Yamba, as we had a bit on our plate at the time,’ says Jim.

Like most competitors entered for the race, the decision to compete in the 5,500 nautical mile Melbourne-Osaka did not happen overnight. ‘The idea came to me around 10 years ago,’ affirms Jim, ‘so I took Hullabaloo out of the water and started to fix her up for the race, and it seems to have gone on and on.’

House builders by trade, Jim and Joe have worked side-by-side for the past four years. Joe finished his apprenticeship in November this year. While the pair mirror each other in a number of ways, their sailing backgrounds couldn’t be more different.

Joe, who recently turned 20, started sailing early in his life and is a keen and successful Laser sailor who thus far has only dabbled in offshore sailing, including having helped deliver his Dad’s yacht to and from Hamilton Island Race Week a couple of times.

Jim, on the other hand, did not start sailing until he was 21 and his story reads like something out of a ‘wishes really do come true’ book. ‘I always liked the water and was down in Sydney and happened to get a job on a charter boat in 1970. One of the guys on board was Boy Messenger (one of the early Sydney-Hobart yacht racers and respected in the yachting fraternity until his death in 2003).

‘I mentioned to Boy that I’d like to go on boats and travel. He put me on to Magnus Halvorsen (another great yachtsman and boat builder who with his brother Trygve won a record five Sydney-Hobart races) who I did a delivery with. He was great, a really practical sailor who had great ideas on seamanship. I got my leg in there and sailed all over the United States for 18 months with a guy called Jim Gannon, who remains a good friend to this day and who helped me build Hullabaloo. I guess I was in the right place at the right time.

‘When I came home, I got to sail on Apollo and did the 1973 Hobart on it. We led ‘The Flying Footpath’ (Helsal) all the way to Tasman Island, but she sneaked past us and broke the race record, which we also did too.’ The 72ft Helsal, owned by Dr Tony Fisher, beat them home by less than an hour!

That race opened up all sorts of prospects for Jim; after all, any yachtie worth his salt knew Apollo. To sail aboard a boat of its calibre told the world you had made it.

Designed by Bob Miller (Ben Lexcen), Alan Bond chartered his 57 footer out for the Hobart race and Jack Rooklyn was the skipper, Stan Darling the navigator. Earlier the same year, Apollo broke two race records representing Australia at the Admirals Cup in Cowes and went on to win the Fastnet Race.

However, despite sailing aboard the famous maxi, Jim’s favourite sailing experience remains the 1978 Solo Trans Tasman Race. ‘I had a Swanson 32 and finished fourth across the line after a very rough race. We had a cyclone and lost a few boats ‘ one boat went up on Middleton Reef and one on Fraser Island, a couple lost their masts; so it was satisfying for me to finish the race. A great feeling to accomplish that,’ he says.

Fifty-nine-year-old Jim concedes he has not done many offshore racing miles on Hullabaloo; he has sailed her to New Zealand and Lord Howe Island. ‘The hull is an ideal shape to do what we’re planning to do and says: ‘The Melbourne-Osaka will be very interesting and a real challenge to get ready.’

Being so far removed from the other competitors, who mostly live on the door steps of major yacht clubs, Jim had concerns regarding his yacht preparation for the race. So he sailed Hullabaloo up to Mooloolaba for a meeting with yacht designer and Melbourne-Osaka stalwart Jon Sayer and to ask his opinion. And Sayer kindly obliged.

‘He told me what we needed to do. This is a huge task: funding, making sure we don’t run out of heating and power, getting the sails and boat right, being ready on time, preparing the boat for Category 0 racing (the most stringent category in yacht racing). So we started talking to other experienced Osaka sailors to help get ourselves up to pace’ It’s a huge learning curve,’ Jim explained.

‘The main thing about this race is that we’ve got to finish it. Doesn’t really matter where we finish, as long as we finish and finish safely.

‘I’ve been following this race for many years and originally thought I might do it with Jim (Gannon). When Joe was 12, we drove to Melbourne to watch the start and decided then I had to do the race. We did the trip to Melbourne in a truck and slept in it and followed the yachts down to Portsea.

‘Jon Sayer and Rob Drury were nice enough to show us aboard Sayernara (which went on to win the 1999 race) and that clinched it for me. I find single and double-handed sailing fascinating; I always have. I can’t wait to hit the start line,’ says Jim, who besides son Joe, has two older daughters living in Sydney.

‘My wife, Kerry, is not that keen on the idea of us doing the race, she can’t understand why we want to go. I guess you have to have it in your blood to understand. But she is helping out with food and nutrition, following up with emails; doing all the behind the scenes work. She and a few of her friends are backing us up quite a bit.

‘I’m also looking forward to sailing home in company and making lots of new friends along the way, and to a long sail, and semi-retirement,’ says Jim, who owns and works a sugar cane and cattle farm just up the road from the family home, and another cattle property a little further up the river. ‘We are into farming in a small way, but it’s still a lot of work,’ he concedes.

While father and his son have not spent a lot of sailing time together, Jim says: ‘That’s part of our Melbourne-Osaka adventure. But we have worked together for the past four years, so we pretty much know each other’s good and bad points ‘ and we both have our share of bad points!’

Ordinarily, people rub each other up the wrong way when sailing long ocean miles in confined quarters. The situation is exacerbated when there are only two of you at sea for 40 and more days, but Jim and his son share a rare close bond.
‘I think it will work out fine ‘ as long as I don’t have to listen to radio 2JJJ’ We don’t enjoy the same music at all, but I suppose I can always turn off the radio and chuck his CDs over the side if I don’t like them,’ he laughs.

‘I think now is a great opportunity for us to have our adventure. Joe will be 21 next year and probably doing other things, so we have to make the most of it while we can. Any problems we do have will be sorted out during the daily happy hour over a drink.’

Joe’s sailing path has been very different to his father’s, but brought up on the water at Yamba with his father’s love of sailing, the 20-year-old says: ‘I was always mucking about with boats from about four or five years old.

‘I’ve always loved sailing and the water. We had two Sabots at home and I would come home from school every day and a mate would have them rigged and waiting. We’d jump straight on and then sail till it was dark. We are still good friends.’

Eventually, Joe moved into the Laser class and went on to compete at the Worlds and Nationals. In 2003, he won a place at the Queensland Youth Championship and went on to win the 2005 North Coast Laser regatta.

‘I haven’t sailed it much for the past year though,’ explains Joe, ‘I’ve been too busy with my apprenticeship, sailing a bit on Hullabaloo and performing lifeguard duty at Yamba. This is my first season since I got my qualification.’

As far as the Melbourne-Osaka race goes, he says: ‘I know Hullabaloo well, and Dad and I aren’t kidding ourselves about winning the race.’ Although Joe’s offshore sailing has been limited, he is a more than competent sailor and is looking forward to the coming race with his Dad.

‘Like all fathers and sons, we have our arguments, but half an hour later we’re mates again. That’s where we’re good ‘ we don’t hold any grudges. Dad will be in charge for the race and I’m sure we’ll have the odd argument along the way, but we’ll get over it.

‘Luckily, Dad and I are very close ‘ we know pretty much what each other is thinking most the time ‘ we live together, work together and sail together and we enjoy each other’s company.’

The hardest thing about the race, he says, ‘will be the lack of sleep and getting into the rhythm of watches over a long period of time. I like my sleep so much ‘ I like to sleep seven to eight hours a night and can sleep through an alarm clock really well’.

On the upside, Joe says, ‘I’m most looking forward to just being out there sailing; trimming sails, keeping the boat going. And to meeting others doing the race and locals in Osaka. Now that the race is so close, I can’t wait to get going. During breaks at work, that’s all Dad and me talk about ‘ sailing and the race.’

I ask him will he miss anything while he is at sea. ‘No, nothing. I can’t wait to go; I’m a bit of an adventurer and I want to do as much as I can while I can. I don’t have a lot of offshore experience, but I did a delivery back from Hobart last year on Loki, so this race will be a big learning curve for me.

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