Skulduggery in the days before AIS

Reading all the kerfuffle about turning AIS gear off and the subsequent protests brought to mind a Hobart race somewhere back in the early 80’s (the memory gets a bit water logged when sailing long races in leaky boats). This story might also pad out a bit of the history of Hobart races and the camaraderie and tricks that used to go on when the sport was defined by amateurs rather than rules, egos, dollars and professional yachtsmen. Don’t get me wrong, egos and dollars always played a part, but for most of us it was about the challenge, the competition, getting there and back relatively unscathed, having a bloody good sail along the way and the shear fun, fear and beer at the end of it.

There were always the showmen; Josko Grubick, Jack Rooklyn and so on, but they were the exceptions. Jack was such a showman that according to legend, when he was coming up the Derwent at the end of one Hobart Race he unnecessarily sailed over to Bellerive so that Apollo could fly a kite across the finish line. The other thing that was always at the front of the bus back then, was that we had fun. Enjoyment was a critical part of the equation. Why else would you subject yourself to getting a flogging? In our case, sailing out of Hobart we had to get the boats up to Sydney; no professional delivery crews for the Hobart boys. You could rarely get across the Strait AND up the NSW coast without a touch up somewhere along the way. Then south bound on Boxing day regardless of the forecast. And that was when we all knew that a 25 knot forecast meant wind gusts over 40 knots coupled with what a 2 or 3 knot counter current would do to the Bass Strait seaway.

That is not to say we weren’t competitive. Depending on the boat you were on, we liked to think we had a chance of winning or at least beating someone else in the same class. The only time that was more fun than changing down a usually piston hanked heads’l in a gale or driving the boat down a wave faster than you thought was possible, was sked time when the whole crew would gather round the nav table, asking “Where is ‘So n So” or “How far ahead (or behind) is Such n Such”.

But I digress. My recollection of the particular event I referred to above was one of those races you recall only as a series of dunkings punctuated by the odd beer smuggled on board and passed around the on-watch crew while the owner was below decks, well before the time of AIS, chart plotters, GPS’s, even sat navs and other such new-fangled contraptions.

I remember doing the radio sked when we were somewhere in Bass Strait. I say ‘somewhere’ because while my sun shots were usually pretty close to the mark, on a rolling boat in the middle of a blow, that bloody mark had a mind of its own! Back then when giving a report, yachts would quite often complete their transmission with either ‘observed’ meaning a sextant verified position or ‘dead reckoned’ which with the Bass Strait currents made it at best a guestimate that could be out by many miles. We all had a sheet with the list of the other boats in the race and a space to write down their reported latitude and longitude positions. It was always a challenge to find a dry corner of the nav table, wedging yourself into a corner while trying to get reports down and secondly to actually hear the reports of the other boats with all the crashing and banging going on, because almost invariably sked time coincided with a sail change, a squall or most often both.

Many a time the positions given were ‘erroneous’ to put it politely and it was a well-worn trick to alter your position to confuse or dishearten your close competitors.

It may seem stupid to today’s racing fleets and the world has certainly moved on, but conversely back then we all knew we were on our own and survival was not something you expected to be contributed by others. However, be that as it may (and I’m, not looking for a blue with anyone on this point) back to the story.

We would call in sightings of other yachts if their radios were on the blink and we recognised the particular boat, as well as passing on position reports for yachts with problematic signal strength. So, it came to pass that Josko Grubick, (sadly no longer with us) sailing on Anaconda 2, radioed in his position as being some 60 miles south of where he actually was. Subsequent position reports came in from various yachts and of course he was eventually undone by another yacht giving an accurate ‘observed’ position report followed by the inevitable ‘And Anaconda is two miles astern of us’. This got the fleet going with numerous subsequent reports of ‘Anaconda is abeam of us’ and so on until one bright spark came up with ‘And I can see Anaconda’s spreaders’.

Of course as the boats were called in alphabetical sequence and Anaconda was at the top of the list, the whole fleet got in on the act, until one little thirty footer bringing up the tail of the fleet gave his position report some hundred or so miles astern and finished his transmission with ‘And I wish I could see Anaconda’s spreaders!’ Strangely, we didn’t hear from Josko again that boat race.

See you out there.



John Bourke is a regular contributor to the Tasmanian Yachtsman and has sailed 14 Hobart races over the past 40 odd years.

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