Sydney Hobart two-handed sailors make history

For the 2021 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, the super maxis and racing yachts had to share the media spotlight with a new division of boats.

The inaugural Two-Handed Division comprised of a fleet of 17 yachts, each with two sailors on board, started out on the 628 nautical mile race on Boxing Day.

The crew from Speedwell, Salt Shaker and Joker on Tourer talked to me about the highs and lows experienced on their journey south.

Speedwell

The two crew on board the Beneteau 34.7 Speedwell hoped to cross the finish line of the 2021 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race in the early hours of Friday, December 31. But light winds pressed paused on their progress along the River Derwent, and they arrived much later in the day.

To be specific, at 2:36:20pm on New Year’s Eve, Speedwell, representing the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA), co-skippered by Campbell Geeves and Wendy Tuck, crossed the finish line with the kite up at eight-knots.

Black and white portrait: Campbell sitting down and Wendy is standing.
Campbell Geeves and Wendy Tuck. Pic – Andrea Francolini

Speedwell battled it out with the J/99 Rum Rebellion (Shane Connelly, Graeme Dunlop) for close to 24 hours before the finish. Rum Rebellion overtook Speedwell after she came to a standstill in converging breezes while rounding Tasman Island (south of Port Arthur). But after Rum Rebellion’s big spinnaker ripped, Speedwell took the lead again to finish 40 seconds ahead of its rivals.

Speedwell came fifth on line honours out of 10 finishers (from 17 starters) in the inaugural Two-Handed Division, and third on two-handed IRC.

“When we parked up in Storm Bay, that’s the worst night of sailing I’ve ever done,” Geeves said on the phone from Tasmania. At the time of our interview, he and Tuck were returning to the boat after a pub dinner. “To [Tuck’s] credit, she just kept going. She told me to go to bed which I did because I was pretty exhausted. But it was as frustrating and awful as anything I’ve had on a boat.

“But it was all worth it because we got on the podium.”

Tuck, a seasoned ocean racer and the first female skipper to win a Clipper Round the World Race in 2017-2018, said it was “pretty cool” to be involved in the first two-handed division of the race.

“We were part of history, and no one can take that away from you,” Tuck said. “And to be on the podium as well makes it a little bit extra special. It never really hit me how important it was until after the race.”

Speedwell sailing upwind.
Speedwell en route to Hobart. Pic – Andrea Francolini / RSHYR

Speedwell, owned by Geeves’ father Colin, made it through a tough first 30 hours of the race, which was spent pounding into a 20 to 30-knots southerly (with squalls reaching up to 40 knots). To escape the challenging conditions, the duo sailed closer to the shore.

Geeves, like Tuck, is a veteran of ocean racing. The 2021 race marked Geeves 12th Sydney Hobart and Tuck’s 14th. Geeves admitted that the decision to sail closer to shore cost time, but ultimately gave them more energy to stay motivated for the Bass Strait crossing.

“We really raced hard, pushed the boat really hard, pushed each other hard, and here we are,” Geeves said.

For the rest of the race, the duo played the watch system by ear, taking breaks only when needed, and coming up on deck when the alarm – a hard persistent knock from whoever was on the deck – went off.

Tuck said she “loved the race. I don’t think there was a part of it that I didn’t love – except where I was trying to figure out was wrong with the HF radio.” Tuck was referring to her first radio ‘sked’ (a scheduled HF radio call with race officials), which almost ended up not happening due to an electronics issue.

The duo are proud of their grass-roots campaign that wouldn’t have been a success without the support of family and friends. They also had several sponsors, whose financial support meant that Speedwell received a new and improved sail wardrobe.

“It was fortuitous for us that the race was cancelled last year. We wouldn’t have made it to Hobart with the mainsail we had last year,” Tuck said.

Geeves and Tuck are not ruling out competing in the Two-Handed Division for the 77th edition of the great race.  

Black and white photo of Wendy and Campbell standing back-to-back.
“I don’t think there was a part of it that I didn’t love,” Tuck said. Pic – Andrea Francolini

“It’s infinitely harder and infinitely more rewarding,” Geeves said, comparing two-handed to fully crewed sailing.

Geeves hopes to compete in the two-handed again so that he is able to greet his father, Colin, at the end of the race.

“I want to give my dad a hug on Constitution Dock,” Geeves said. “It’d be a reason to go and do it again for me.”

Salt Shaker

Behind Speedwell on Two Handed IRC in fourth place, was the Sydney 36 Salt Shaker (CYCA), co-skippered by Peter Franki (61) and Drew Jones (56).

Black and white photo of Peter Franki (sitting) and Drew Jones (standing).
Peter Franki (sitting) and Drew Jones. Pic – Andrea Francolini

The duo had an exciting Sydney Harbour race start, almost going over the line at one minute to go after Jones got the wrong time on his watch display. But they were able to recover and exited the heads on the tail of the J/99 Disko Trooper_ Contender Sailcloth (Jules Hall and Jan Scholten). Disko Trooper went on to win the two-handed trophy, after winning on IRC.

Like Speedwell, Salt Shaker decided to stick to the slightly more sheltered in-shore route after Jones suffered from sea sickness in the first 24 hours.

But once they entered Bass Strait and the wind shifted to the north, they were able to make up for lost time.

“Our race kind of re-started,” Jones said on the phone from Hobart, with Franki by his side. “It was nice not being so close to the land and having more options.”

The Bass Strait crossing sounded like it couldn’t have been more perfect. Salt Shaker surfed the waves with the spinnaker flying, gaining 30 miles, according to Jones, on Disko Trooper in one day. Salt Shaker also kept pace with fully crewed sister ships – Midnight Rambler (Ed Psaltis) and Supernova (Alex Seja and Felicity Nelson). And unlike majority of crew on the bigger boats, Franki experienced the luxury of a “fantastic” hot shower.

Salt Shaker sailing. Islands in the background.
Approaching Tasman Island aboard Salt Shaker. Pic – Drew Jones

Franki and Jones said they couldn’t have achieved fourth place on two-handed IRC without the modifications that transformed Salt Shaker into a two-handed ‘friendly’ yacht.

“The MVPs on the boat for me were between the dodger, the autopilot and the cunninghams for the reefing. The three modifications I think were the duck nuts. They made a big difference for us,” Jones said.

The Bass Strait crossing lost some of its lustre after they encountered light and shifting conditions upon entering Storm Bay.

The Elliott 1250 Tourer, Joker on Tourer (Grant Chipperfield and Peter Dowdney) soon put Franki and Jones’ chance of coming third on two-handed line honours at risk. Jones said the “David Attenborough” like experience of passing the Iron Pot (on the eastern side of the River Derwent) teeming with marine life, became “painfully frustrating” after Salt Shaker travelled just 11 miles in five hours.

Despite not having a proper break for more than 10 hours, the duo managed to overtake Joker on Tourer again, beating Chipperfield and Dowdney over the line by 13 seconds.

Jones said, “The amount of emotion and effort put in when we crossed the line – I was just physically and emotionally spent. We played the boat, trimmed, gybed. It was intense right up to the finish line.

“And then crossing the line, the emotion of beating them by a boat length – it was mind boggling.”

Franki and Jones came third on two-handed line honours, behind the Akilaria RC2 Sidewinder (Rob Gough and John Saul) and Disko Trooper.

Salt Shaker tied to the dock. People sitting on board.
Salt Shaker arrives at Kings Pier Hobart. Pic – Drew Jones

This Sydney Hobart was Franki’s fourth, while Jones was a first timer. But Jones is no sailing novice. Back in Sydney, he is a Senior Special Aquatic Events Officer for Roads & Maritime.

Franki said, “This is the first Hobart race I’ve done for around 30 years, and to be on the podium on my own boat with a close friend was like a dream come true.”

Jones (left) and Franki (right) with their trophies in Hobart.
Drew Jones (left) and Peter Franki with their trophies in Hobart. Pic – Drew Jones

Franki and Jones are thinking about doing it all again in 2022. But if there is a next time, they hope the two-handed sailors will be allowed to contend for the Tattersall Cup – the prize for the overall corrected-time winner of the race (judged on handicap).

In 2021, the fleet was divided into fully crewed and two-handed divisions.

In Europe, the two-handed crew of Pascal and Alexis Loison won the 2013 Fastnet Race overall on IRC. Franki and Jones would like to see that opportunity given to two-handed Sydney Hobart sailors.

“I see it pretty simply,” Franki said. “It’s a race between yachts with crew, whether they’ve got 18 or two. All boats have to have crew. So why isn’t our boat fully crewed because it has two people? We can sail it effectively to its rating against fully crewed sister ships. It’s a race between boats with crew and it’s rated under the IRC rating. We are all of those things.

“Why single out auto pilot as mechanically advanced as opposed to powered winches or hydraulic motors?”

Two trophies next to each other.
The John H Illingworth Challenge Cup and the George Adams Tattersall Cup. Pic – Salty Dingo 2021 CG / RSHYR

Franki and Jones, who liken themselves to Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy old men on the balcony in the Muppet Show, are content with two-handed life. A clean cabin, dry bunks, not having to contend with crew members they barely know and their idiosyncrasies. They also love its Corinthian appeal and the possibilities it offers for all sailors.

“[The fully-crewed Sydney 36] Supernova said ‘Oh my god, you guys are legends. How do you do it with two people?’” Jones said. “We said, ‘How the hell do you do it with eight?’”

Joker on Tourer

Keeping the Salt Shaker crew on their toes for the last stretch of the Sydney Hobart was the Elliott 1250 Tourer, Joker on Tourer (Martha Cove Yacht Squadron), co-skippered by Grant Chipperfield (56) and Peter Dowdney (57).

This race marked Dowdney’s 17th Sydney Hobart campaign ‑ he has now finished 15. Usually, you would find him on the bow of racing yachts towards the top end of the fleet. In 1988, Dowdney, the Australasian Sales Manager for Ronstan, was the bow person on board Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin when she won Sydney Hobart line honours in 1988.

But in this Sydney Hobart, finishing a few days later than the maxis didn’t phase Dowdney, who was focussed on the challenges of sailing two-handed.

After “one of the best finishes” experienced by Dowdney in a Hobart Race, Joker on Tourer came fourth on two-handed line honoursand fourth on ORCi.

“I said to the guys at work, ‘If we can finish in the top five we’d be pretty happy.’ We did that, and not only did we finish top five, we were neck-and-neck for top three. That was a great result,” Dowdney said on the phone from Hobart, where he was preparing the boat for delivery back home to Melbourne.

The 2021 race challenged even the most seasoned sailors. Dowdney and Chipperfield had to hand-steer for the first 30 hours of the race, as the auto pilot struggled to navigate the boat effectively through the waves while sailing close hauled. This meant sacrificing rest time.

“We just kept telling each other that we had to get through the next 36 hours, get through that and we’re fine, we’re out the back door and into the lighter stuff,” Dowdney said.

Person holding onto rails at bow. Water splashing everywhere.
Peter Dowdney at the bow of Joker on Tourer. Pic – Salty Dingo 2021 CG / RSHYRC

“And it turned into the most magnificent crossing of Bass Strait I’ve ever done, it was unbelievable.”

The three hot showers and home cooked meals (such as spaghetti with meatballs and lasagne) that Dowdney wouldn’t never have experienced on a maxi yacht, were the icing on the cake.

However, like several of two-handed yachts, Joker on Tourer struggled as it sailed into Storm Bay at the mouth of the River Derwent, partly because of the extra “caravan” weight after the 15-knot northerly fizzled out.

“Storm Bay was a race in itself, the river was a race in itself,” Dowdney said. “To race four, five days and to finish literally overlapped by the boat you’re trying to beat was an incredible experience.”

The Rolex Sydney Hobart Race finish confirmed Chipperfield and Dowdney’s to be competent two-handed offshore sailors and Joker on Tourer’s ability to handle a range of conditions. The duo will now focus on the 2025 Melbourne Osaka Cup. In the lead-up to this 5000-plus nautical mile two-handed yacht race (the equivalent to 10 Sydney Hobart races), Chipperfield and Dowdney plan to race in the 2022 Sydney Noumea Yacht Race and the 50th anniversary of the Melbourne Hobart Westcoaster.

Peter Dowdney and Grant Chipperfield standing in front of their boat on the dock.
Peter Dowdney (left) and Grant Chipperfield. Pic – Peter Dowdney

The Sydney Hobart also confirmed that Chipperfield and Dowdney are in it together for the long run.

Dowdney said, “To me, what you put under us is probably less relevant than who you put yourself with. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the best boat, you’re going to be s*** house if you don’t get on. So I think Grant has presented us with this opportunity. He’s got this beautiful boat that’s quite quick and competitive, and we sail well together. It’s the perfect pairing for Osaka.”

As to his thoughts on the future of two-handed sailing in the Sydney Hobart? “I think two-handed is here to stay and it’s only going to get bigger, bigger, bigger and bigger.”

By Greta Quealy

For the full RSHYR results, see: https://rolexsydneyhobart.com/standings/

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