‘The bad one’ – Reflections on the ‘98 Hobart

Traumatic events can leave physical, mental and emotional scars, as does the very fact that you survived, when others did not. In this article, Ed Psaltis, overall winner of the ’98 Hobart, reflects on the race, on surviving, on winning and on some of the good things to come out of the race.  

The ‘bad race’
Ten years on now and the “bad race” still evokes many vivid memories for me. After winning the race overall, and experiencing mixed feelings given the tragic loss of life, a close family friend told me that in decades to come other races will be forgotten, but not this one. As it turns out he was right, the ‘98 race stands today as the one all remember, it’s become an indelible part of my life. 

Barry Henson, AY’s editor, asked to reflect on what we were thinking and feeling during the race. To be honest a lot of it I couldn’t put to print, but the following will give you an idea of what of what it was like on our boat that day in Bass Strait.

A little told fact about the race is that the fleet had an incredible run down the coast of NSW, before a northerly that strengthened to 45 knots as the intense low developing in Bass Strait sucked the air down into it. Our little 35 footer reached Gabo Island at 11 am on the 27th,  just 22 hours after leaving Sydney, which was a record at the time for a boat our size. I’ll never forget the ride down the coast, it was among the most hair-raising downwind rides I’ve ever experienced, as we pushed this perfect little boat to huge surfing speeds.

The whole crew was on an adrenalin high over this period, listening to the skeds and knowing how well we were doing compared to other boats our size and handicap. The east Australian current was running at up to 4 knots, making the ride that much faster. Little did we know that this current would add to the destruction as it entered Bass Strait and collided with the huge waves and winds whipped up by the low; two unstoppable, opposing forces of nature with neither wanting to take a backward step.

A wall of water
I’ll never forget when the low hit us, about 30 miles into the strait.  I had just called for another reef in the main, and as this was happening I turned to look west sou-west to see what more was coming. 

There, about two miles away, was a great wall of water and wind bearing down on us. I screamed, “Get the @#%$^^@ mainsail off and trysail up”.  My co-owner and offshore racing companion of many years, Bob Thomas, looked at me in amazement.  His demeanor was basically saying “What do you mean you wimp? We’re still racing”. I simply pointed toward the front coming toward us. End of argument.  We both agreed the trysail was the go. Over the years we’ve experienced many fronts, but none before, or since, have matched this front for its intensity. At this point the winds were up to 75 knots, and with just a trysail and storm sail up we were getting laid flat, so we ordered the trysail dropped. We continued on with the storm sail, which was suddenly looking like a very big sail!

The waves continued to build. Everybody was apprehensive. Without a word being said we all realised that this was way beyond racing, we were now in a fight for our survival. All of us were thinking the worst and coming to grips with the fact we may not see our families again, yet no one uttered a single negative word. Teamwork was to play a critical role over the next 12 hours, and to be quite honest, it saved our lives. I know that ‘teamwork’ is an over-used term. Call it ‘mateship’, call it what you like, but there was a feeling of selflessness through the worst of it, where the wellbeing of the boat and each other was more important than your own wellbeing.  Everyone tried in small ways to help others under stress. Each of us endured significant discomfort and sacrifice for the good of the team. The ethic I’m describing came to the fore and it never faltered. Everyone pulled together and did their jobs.

At this point I was pretty much 100% committed to the helm.  My brother, Arthur, was a tremendous help in managing the crew.  The bilge needed constant bailing with the amount of water getting down below.  Bob, as usual, did a brilliant job managing this effort.  Everyone pitched in and helped.  Despite the near constant effort, not a word of complaint was heard.

Our pre-Hobart training paid tremendous dividends throughout this ordeal. We had repeatedly practiced the process of getting the sails off and the storm sail up, and how we would manage the boat above and below decks in the event of a storm.

What do we do?
The temptation to turn and run for Eden was enormous. A safe port just 40 miles to our north, and ahead of us the worst conditions any of us had ever encountered, with no end or shelter in sight, just hundreds of miles of open unforgiving ocean. In the end, senior members of the crew agreed that running in these conditions would only reduce our chances of survival. The big waves were in excess of 60 feet – with top 10 feet breaking – and our boat is only 35 feet.  From bitter experience in the 1993 Hobart we learnt that you can’t present your beam or stern to huge waves. You’ll get rolled, possibly through 360 degrees, and that can spell disaster. We decided that the only way out of this was to take the wind and waves on at about 60 degrees, getting up and over them as best we could. It was an aggressive strategy, but it was our best chance of survival.

Our whole crew committed to this strategy, even Chris who was below with a very bad gash to his head, which came from flying across the cabin below and landing head-first into a protruding bolt just behind the mast. Once we were agreed, we set about getting on with the task at hand, each of us with his own job, so the pressure and pain were absorbed throughout our crew rather than by a few people taking unbearable loads. Yes, we were all scared, but with so much to do we had no time to let that emotion overcome us.

The physical efforts required to get through this cannot be underestimated. Even a simple task like sitting on the rail calling the bigger waves was physically and mentally challenging in these extreme conditions.  Steering was exhausting as you often needed to violently change direction to find the path of least resistance through each wave. All the while knowing that one false move could mean the destruction of the boat.  This responsibility weighed heavily on the shoulders of each helmsman.

The next 12 hours were touch and go. One breaking wave after another, each one a threat to the boat and our lives.  Focus. Don’t give in to exhaustion or fear.  Do the job; that’s what will get you through.

Abating
After those 12 hours the worst of the weather had past. The winds had dropped, how far we’ll never know because the wind gear was blown off the top of the mast! Very high standards of pre-race preparation and crew training had brought us through and, though we were physically and mentally exhausted, we began to race again.

The breeze was around 40 knots, but with fully reefed main and storm jib the boat was powering along nicely, almost comfortably. I think it was during this period that we gained the most in the race. We changed gears faster than most of our competitors and at the next sked that we heard that we were clear first on handicap.

We hadn’t heard the detail of destruction around us so we kept racing as we had in so many other Hobart’s, but this one in hindsight was obviously different.

One memory that sticks in my mind is when we rounded Tasman Island, a place that my father describes as the back side the world. Although the skeds were telling us we were doing incredibly well, we didn’t fully believe it….it was just too good to be true. As we rounded Tasman two boats well offshore were converging on us, they were the two “Quests”, both state of the art ocean racers of the time and much bigger than us, and here we were a Hick 35. There was a lot of celebrating on the little Rambler as we knew that beyond doubt that we were in the lead.

Constitution dock
I will never forget motoring into Constitution dock, where all but the biggest boats go, and seeing it totally empty. The crew, I can recall, didn’t say a word. They were all trying to come to grips with their feelings of relief and elation. As we did a few quiet victory laps around the dock, the camera crews and news teams circled, about to fill us in on the extent of the disaster that had unfolded, and to send us on yet another emotional roller-coaster.

Post-script:
I have also been asked to give my views on the Sea Safety Survival Course that became mandatory as a result of the ‘98 Hobart. Frankly, myself and crew were at first critical of this extra hoop we now had to jump through to go ocean racing.  After all, part of the attraction of this sport is to get away from the red tape, laws and bureaucracy that increasingly rule our world. However, having completed the course, I recommended all crew do it.

The majority of the sessions were very practical and useful, in particular the live life raft sessions. They reinforced the old adage, ‘step up, not down, into your raft’. Once you’ve experienced the inside of a life raft you’ll agree that being inside one of those things in a bad blow is something to be avoided at all costs! The focus of the course is to help you save the boat and avoid having to take this step.

A portion of the safety and sea survival content addresses ways to work better with rescuers, if the worst ever occurs, and it minimizes the risks to all involved. Such developments obviously need to be fully supported. I firmly believe that safety and sea survival is something all people who aspire to race offshore should complete, whether or not their skipper says they need to for race entry requirements.

A last word
I hope the foregoing doesn’t paint me or my crew as being experts, because none of us feel that way. The conditions in the ‘98 Hobart were such that no one was in control. It was up to the Gods to decide who got through. Yes, I believe our pre-race preparation, training and an incredible crew, all contributed to our survival and subsequent victory.  But if the ’98 race did anything, it emphasized that the ocean is the boss and you’re its servant. The minute we, or anyone, starts thinking otherwise, it’s going to find you out. 

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