Yes, I know you can fly there for starters, but in the last week of the year for a surprising number of people, the only way to get to the Apple Isle of Tasmania is by racing boat, but even then, there are an amazing number of options in the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s 628 nautical mile race.
You can get there in a hurry; on a 100 foot behemoth that will skip across the waves at better than 30 knots. You can go Formula I on a 50 or 60 footer, or bounce around in a planing 40 foot carbon hull. Some go first class in a Swan, some steerage in a cramped 30 footer, or you can work your way south in a sturdy displacement warrior and hope you get there in time for the New Year fireworks.
Vanessa Dudley has pretty much tried them all. This year will be ‘Duds’ 22nd, this time aboard the Cookson 12 Grace O’Malley.
One of the great developments in the modern Rolex Sydney Hobart has been the exponential growth in the involvement of women. This year, around a third of sailors are women. Grace O’Malley’s owner/skipper, Zoe Taylor, is one, but Dudley was, and remains one of the trailblazers.
She did her first Hobart in 1984 – a rotten year to pick for her debut. It was a shocker, she says. “It was rough from the start,” Duds recalls, “A big southerly. I haven’t seen many that bad since. After 24 hours we’d hardly gone anywhere. I was wearing every bit of clothing I brought, but I was wet through and freezing. I thought, ‘what’s it going to be like further south in Tasmania?’”
She didn’t find out. “On the second night the backstay levered the transom open. It was quite scary.”
Dudley describes the whole thing as a baptism of fire. It would be three years before her second attempt, “but everyone was so calm and cool, like this must be normal. I thought Sydney Hobart people must be a different breed.”
“I always prayed we’d never get the wind behind us in those days. It gets very frenetic when the spinnaker wraps around the forestay. The new rules don’t reward strange design decisions so much. The new boats are easier to sail,” she says. And so much faster. None more so than the 100 footers that fight it out for line honours.
Awarded female sailor of the year at the 2014 Australian Yachting Awards, a two-time Laser Radial Grand Masters winner, and one of the best yacht steerers in the business, over the years Dudley has been recruited by any number of owners pining for a Hobart podium, including Syd Fischer for his Team Ragamuffin 100.
“I’ve done four races on 100 footers. They’re exciting to sail, but every rope looks like a coiled snake. In 2015 we got caught out when a front came through, and the canting keel was on the wrong side for a while. We capsized. Syd and I were below in the dark, wondering whether it would come back up.
“But the people on these boats are incredible to sail with. They are highly skilled, and fearless. It is a bit like watching soldiers running into the line of fire when they rush up the bow to control a huge flapping sail.
“I had five years with David Witt. He’s a cowboy, incredibly great at what he does. One year on another boat, we were going past the sheer cliffs of Tasman – I was steering and Ian ‘Ox’ Davis was telling me to go in close, but it was dark and there were big surges coming in. Then this other boat went between us and the rocks and Ox is yelling ‘see, see, I told you’.”
Compared to the 100s, Duds admits the 40 foot Grace O’Malley seems small, but “it’s good to be part of a new team. Zoe Taylor is great. She’s ambitious. Our first race was the Newcastle/Bass Island, then the Cabbage Tree (they won it) getting good offshore experience. It is a good crew.”
Despite being hammered in ‘84, forced to retire in ‘98 and the occasional course change to respond to a distress flair, Dudley thinks the fearsomeness of the Hobart is a bit over-rated.
What she remembers most is that, sailing offshore, “It is really beautiful – the blues and whites. Everything is so sharp and the camaraderie, laughing at the stupidest things. There are other things to do at Christmas, but I don’t know what they are.”
The race starts on Boxing Day at 1300hrs AEDT and will be broadcast live on the Seven Network throughout Australia.
Online entry and Notice of Race in English and Mandarin are available online at: http://rolexsydneyhobart.com/competitors/notice-of-race-entry/
By Jim Gale, RSHYR media