Rolex Sydney Hobart: White ghosts poised to sink rivals' hopes

Matthew Donald laughs when the scenario of his Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race entrant, Gweilo,appearing from her shroud of relative anonymity as a newcomer to the Australian racing scene to win the event overall is put to him.

‘Gweilo’ is Cantonese for “white ghost”, and with the image emblazoned on her hull and her crew’s sailing gear, the sight of the once named ‘Container’ to debut in the Rolex Sydney Hobart would certainly be a memorable one.

“We were planning to have the big ghost on the spinnaker but ran out of time. “That will be for next year,” said Donald, who bought the 2011 Judel/Vrolijk designed race entry in April with Chris Townsend, as he tried to picture Gweilo usurping a strong field of TP52s – including Matt Allen’s defending champion Ichi Ban – and winning the race on corrected time.

To explain the reason behind her name, Donald turns time back to his days living in Hong Kong for “a good part of 20 years.” Townsend also lived there for several years. For most of that time, Donald says, they were referred to as ‘gweilos’ by locals. The term, Donald adds, once translated into the derogatory “white devil,” but then became “white ghost” … or the now “friendly term for a Westerner in Cantonese.”

Either way, it was an identity he and Townsend shared, and a fitting name by which to christen their TP52, the former sistership to the original RAN, when they bought her with racing this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart in mind.

Donald says the Gweilo campaign is tracking well, considering the short time he and Townsend have owned the boat.

“It’s been a fast preparation because we only purchased the boat in or around April,” Donald says. “We took major work to the boat to transform it from being an inshore racing boat to an offshore racing boat. We feel now we have the boat exactly where it needs to be, finding how the boat really sails and getting in the best position she can before the big race.”

Gweilo has made steady improvement in her races since then. She placed fifth in the Noakes Sydney Gold Coast Yacht Race, fourth in the Brisbane Keppel Island, eighth in the Newcastle-Bass Island and fifth in December’s Bird Island race. “We continue to tinker with things the more we learn about it,” Donald says.

“We put ourselves in pretty good positions, starting with the Southport (Noakes Sydney Gold Coast Yacht Race), where we basically led the fleet until Cape Byron, then we hit a bit of a bad patch.

“We’ve continued to progress and had some good ones and bad ones and kept learning. We’re right where need to be to give ourselves a good chance.”

However, Donald realises that there will be some stiff competition among the fleet of TP52s that numbers 10.

“Matt has set the bench mark for everyone,” says Donald of Matt Allen. “No one has really been able to compete with him closely this year, but a few of the boats have done some work.”

Boats that come to Donald’s mind include the Sam Haynes owned Celestial -and Koathat is co-owned by Peter Wrigley and Andy Kearnan. “Everyone has tinkered a little bit,” Donald says. “I think it is going be a very competitive class.”

Allen does not under estimate his rival TP52s, but he is happy to assume Ichi Ban’s favouritism to become the first back-to-back Tattersall Cup winner since the Halvorsen brothers’ Freya that won three in a row; 1963, 1964, 1965.

“We went into last year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart as favourite and going that way again this year,” said Allen at last Friday’s press conference for the overall contenders and the Tattersall Cup at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia.

“We know a lot more about the boat than we did this time last year and we are more confident in the boat, our sails and rig set-up.”

“All the crew are looking forward to the challenge of going back to back – and the forecast is looking pretty good for 50 footers …”

Adding weight to Gweilo’s credentials is the experience of her crew made up mostly from the winning 2008 and 2015 campaigns of Paul Clitheroe and Bob Steel owned TP52 Quest/Balance respectively. Also, skippering the Gweilo crew is Mike Green who will be sailing in his 40th Hobart this year and to date boasts one line honours victory and three overall wins since 1993, of which two were with Quest/Balance.

“We were very lucky that Paul Clitheroe and Bob Steel decided not to do the offshore program this year,” says Donald.

“It gave Chris and myself a chance to secure a very experienced crew that had already sailed together for some period of time.

“With us being relatively new to the sport – in Australia anyway – not knowing who the people are … I don’t think we would have got to this point if we didn’t run into (crewmate) Adam Brown and Mike Green who have been tremendous in the transformation of the crew and getting everything ready.

“Sixty to 70 percent of them have sailed together for a number of years. We have ‘Greenie’ doing his 40th, ‘Brownie’ is into his 30s, and Sam Hunt, who is doing his 26th … three guys who have done close to a hundred Hobarts between them.”

The current forecast is for light winds at the start on Boxing Day, but then a stiff north to north-easterly with gusts of up to 35 knots on that night and into the next day. While Donald believes this will make for an exciting and fast race with the fleet being kept tight for much of it, he would prefer tougher conditions.

“It seems (there will be) pretty favourable conditions. The TPs and a few others will be able to run hard and fast down the coast of NSW,” says Donald, adding that his aim is to finish in two and a half days. “It will keep the fleet pretty tight together if those conditions continue. But we would like to see things mix up a little bit … to be a little bit challenging.

“Our boat sails pretty well in tough conditions. But if we can get a good run down the coast and hang in with Ichi Ban, Celestial and the others … who knows what will happen.”

The Boxing Day start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will be broadcast live on the Seven Network via 7Mate throughout Australia.

For full list of entries and all information:

By Rupert Guinness, RSHYR media 

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