The Rolex Sydney Hobart is a women's world too

In its early days, ocean racing was a very blokey thing – hard sailing and hard drinking – back to the wife and kids on a Sunday night after a weekend offshore – so it is an interesting fact that this year more young women than young men are doing their first Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

Two of them are 18 year old Emma May and Nicky Bradley, 19.  Both are making their Rolex Sydney Hobart debuts on the pointy end of Noel Cornish’s Sydney 47 St Jude

The foredeck is where young sailors have traditionally made their ocean racing bones, slipping and sliding about wrestling big, heavy sails on a heaving patch of fibreglass that just will not stay still.

“There is a lot of adrenalin at the bow,” Emma says. “When a wave comes over it can be very impressive.”

The two have spent the last couple of days looking at footage of past Hobarts as part of their safety training; spectacular images of boats all but disappearing up to the mast in Bass Strait swells, then launching out into space for a two second eternity before crashing into the white water below. Yet they remain undaunted.

“We’ve heard a few horror stories. We’ve been warned,” laughs Emma. 

“I think we’re aware of every possible dangerous scenario that has happened,” Nicky chimes in, yet they cannot wait for Boxing Day.

“The last month has gone so much more quickly than I thought it would,” says Nicky. “I’ve gone through the three stages: terrified, nervous and now excited.”

Once the foredeck was the realm of the gorilla. Big, testosterone infused blokes who could toss around cotton and Dacron sails like sacks of wheat. A bit of weight is still hard to beat when the wind grabs a flailing jib and tries to fling you off the deck, but in these days of lighter, faster, skiff-like grand prix yachts, skill, smarts and athleticism count for more than sheer grunt.

That is what is attracting top class dinghy and skiff sailors like Chelsea Hall to ocean racing. She will be trimming the mainsail on West Australian Trevor Taylor’s Marten 49 Optimus Prime, and sees long ocean races like the Rolex Sydney Hobart as a gateway into the professional world of Volvo round-the-world racing.

“I dream of doing the Volvo race,” she says. “Our navigator has done one and all the other crew on Optimus Primehave done a lot of ocean miles, so I’ve been trying to learn off them.”

As well as doing some offshore racing in Western Australia, a 16-day delivery voyage from Perth to Sydney, including a windward bash into 40 knots has already given Chelsea a taste of what to expect.

“It’s a new challenge. I like being outdoors and I really enjoyed getting wet and the big waves; I learned a lot off Trevor,” the West Australian sailor says.

Wendy Tuck is competing in her eighth Hobart, this one aboard Last Tango, a heavy weather displacement cruiser/racer.  Does she have any advice for the youngsters?  “Warm clothes, warm clothes and warm clothes. 

“Get caught up in the excitement of the first day because it is incredible, but when it’s time to go off watch, go below and get some sleep because you never know when you’re not going to be able to sleep next,” Wendy, a sailing instructor says.

“Eat when you can, drink when you can, sleep when you can and stay warm because when you get cold it is very hard to get warm again.”

So what has attracted these young women to the rigours of ocean racing? “It’s completely different,” Emma May says. “You have to work as a team. The thrill of winning as a team is what brings you back. The people you sail with become like a family.”

Chelsea Hall says:  “You really have to enjoy working with people. You can bounce off each other.”

“There aren’t many things as challenging,” says Nicky Bradley “It pushes you to the absolute limit. And it’s great coming back to the bar after a long race.” 

Each year the number of women competing in the Rolex Sydney Hobart  grows, but they are still a small minority. 

“If you look around there are 30 or 40 women racing this year, but it is still a male-dominated race,” says Nicky, “and I want to show that we can do whatever the boys can do.  Part of it is for the women.

“Adrian Cahalan is a member of my sailing club,” adds Emma, “and to be honest, I probably never would have thought it possible to do a Hobart before seeing her. Having women who have already done what you want to do is encouraging.”

“I think a lot of women don’t know what they can achieve, so just showing them that you can do it helps a lot,” says Sibby Ilzhofer, who is skippering her own Cookson 47, Dare Devil down to Hobart.

“We have our own Dare Devil Facebook page and I find that the majority of our followers are women. They’re really excited about what’s going on.”

“Some women do have it in their heads that if they are smaller they might not be able to do an ocean race but you can. You just do things differently. Work with what you’ve got,” Wendy Tuck adds. You just need to think outside the normal ways of doing things and have confidence yourself.”

The start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will be broadcast live on the Seven Network throughout Australia and webcast live to a global audience on Yahoo!7.

A Parade of Sail will take place from 10.30am to 11.30am, before a fleet of 117 will set sail from three start lines in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race on December 26 at 1.00pm AEDT.

– Jim Gale, RSHYR media

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