The Race

One of Australia’s most popular and enduring sporting events is the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. The race starts on Boxing Day and the passage down the east coast grabs national attention over the Christmas and New Year break, giving ocean racing an annual moment in the spotlight. It is internationally recognised as one of the three classic blue-water ocean races, along with the Fastnet Race in the UK and Bermuda Race on the east coast of the USA.

Rolex Sydney to Hobart

The 2014 race will be the 70th in the series. In a sign of the times the race has a contemporary sponsor, Rolex, but the heritage of the race is now strongly recognised by all who have taken part in the past as well as those involved in this year’s event, and it’s a much bigger story than just a three-to-four-day race down the coast.

Ocean racing is just that—racing yachts out on the open sea. It takes place in a natural environment and the crews and yachts have no control over what conditions the sea may provide. There are flat calms through to storm-strength gales, currents and tides, variable wave and swell patterns, and the ever-shifting wind, over day and night—the only constant is change. A race report from the first event describes it well: ‘those two irresponsibles—wind and wave’.

And there are no lanes, signposts or field markings to show the way. The boundaries of the course are the coastline and the landmarks that tick off milestones on the course. These days you can rely on GPS to pinpoint where you are, but in the past precise navigation depended on how accurate you were with sun, moon and star observations. This was a time when your direction and destiny very much relied on human-powered calculations and then, when the weather closed in, your best estimation.

'Ichi Ban' soon after the start of the 2002 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. © Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

There is no pit lane to pull over into for repairs, changes of personnel and refuelling—once you start, you have to be self-sufficient to the end. You are always working the yacht and can change the configuration while you are sailing—different sail trim and combinations allow the crew to adjust the boat to the conditions, and the winners monitor and optimise the boat constantly to keep it sailing at its full potential. But you’re working with very expensive and sometimes fragile gear and sail changes have to be done with care, especially in challenging conditions.

The backup to gear failure is how you react to incidents on board, making running repairs where possible or having something spare in reserve or a margin of safety that allows you to carry on despite damage.

Navigator Bill Lieberman on Wayfarer in the 1945 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Courtesy Cruising Yacht Club of Australia

The safety net as such is waiting off to one side, hopefully not needing to be initiated. Communications, flares, a life raft, EPIRBs, survival suits, even pre-race training and simulations—this is all secondary gear rigorously monitored and enforced, yet marking time until things go seriously wrong. Onshore emergency services are there to respond, but they too have their controls and limits, and self-help among the competing yachts is a code of practice that comes into play to help avoid a catastrophe. The risk of this is always there, and there have been notable times when it has played out in public view.

Teamwork and leadership are intrinsic qualities needed throughout to keep harmony among crew, to maintain their enthusiasm and ability to push on, and to keep it all under control and operating at a high level.

It’s a race full of intriguing contrasts: how the amateurs and Corinthian sailors mix with the professional sportspeople and Olympic representatives in the crews; the high-tech races against those of the previous generation; even down to the historic—how many other sports have such a diverse range of participants and equipment, all sent off at the same time, aiming for the same goal, on the same course? The top boats were all high-tech in their time, but those of today seem even more so—hugely expensive racing machines built with advanced materials to fine tolerances, carrying only what is needed to support the crew so they can operate efficiently, forcing them to live and work around the yacht and its gear.

Participants will experience a huge range of emotions over the journey, and require stamina to see it through. The extraordinary scenery along the way seems a contradiction to the serious racing intent, but the atmosphere can be uplifting and this feeling becomes part of the reason crews return to race in the open sea time after time.

Experience is a factor that helps enormously and only comes with time and determination, but come it does for the many sailors who feel the addiction of this sport and return each year to take on the Hobart race.

The crew of Ilina during the 1960s, with a young Rupert Murdoch third from the left leaning on the boom. Courtesy Cruising Yacht Club of Australia

The history of the race

The Sydney to Hobart race began in an off-the-cuff fashion. In the latter part of World War II, sailors on Sydney Harbour formed the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) to promote cruising and casual races in lieu of those suspended during the previous war years. Their first official event was in October 1944. During 1945 three of the members—Jack Earl, Peter Luke and Bert Walker—planned a cruise to Hobart in their respective yachts after Christmas. One evening Captain John Illingworth RN gave a talk to the club members, and afterwards Peter Luke suggested Illingworth might like to join the cruise. Illingworth’s reply was ‘I will, if you make a race of it’.

And so it was. The Sydney Morning Herald on 16 June 1945 noted that ‘Plans for a race from Sydney to Hobart, early in January 1946 are being made by the Cruising Yacht Club … five possible entries had already been received’.

Later, in the Australian Power Boat and Yachting Monthly of 10 October 1945, there is a more formal notice.

Yacht Race to Tasmania: It is expected that an Ocean Yacht Race may take place from Sydney to Hobart, probably starting on December 26, 1945. Yachtsmen desirous of competing should contact Vice President Mr P Luke … Entries close December 1 1945.

From these small beginnings the cruise became a race and Captain Illingworth helped with the arrangements, showing the club how to measure the boats and handicap the event. The plans, expectations, the probables and possibles of earlier reports—they all turned into reality at the entrance to Sydney Harbour just inside North Head on Boxing Day in 1945, when nine yachts set forth, including Illingworth in his recently purchased yacht Rani. Illingworth had previous experience of ocean racing from his homeland in England and in the USA, where he was a respected competitor, and he prepared Rani to race to Hobart, and not just sail there. The other sailors had a more relaxed attitude.

The crew of Wayfarer in the 1945 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race: (Left to right) Geoff Ruggles, Len Willsford, Brigadier A.G. Mills, Peter Luke (at rear), Bill Lieberman, Fred Harris. Courtesy Cruising Yacht Club of Australia

That first race encapsulated many features now associated with the event, and in hindsight was a warning of things to come. A strong southerly gale hit the fleet on the first day, and many were unprepared for the rough seas that scattered the fleet. Some boats hove to, one retired and the others sought shelter. Wayfarer’s crew went ashore twice to phone home before resuming the race, including a stop at Port Arthur. According to Seacraft magazine of March 1946, ‘Licensee of the Hotel Arthur put on a barrel of beer specially for Wayfarer’s crew, and they enjoyed their first drink of draught beer since they left Sydney on Boxing Day. A local resident treated the ship’s company to a crayfish supper, which was the gastronomic highlight of the voyage’.

Meanwhile the experienced Illingworth, who had prepared Rani and his crew well, had continued to race his yacht throughout. Before the race it was reported that the RAAF would put planes on patrol to keep the yachts under observation, but the weather had made that very difficult. When the gale eased and an aircraft was dispatched to look for the fleet, Rani was so far ahead that it was not located and was presumed missing. The press had the event as their headline article, and later the sudden reappearance of Rani off Tasman Island was a sensation. Rani won easily and the remaining seven boats gradually crossed the line in Hobart, bringing more stories of the race ashore for the public to enjoy.

This impressive coverage for the period ensured the race would continue, and by March 1946 media reports noted that the club secretary, A C Cooper, had said it would be an annual event starting on Boxing Day. As it went ahead in its second year the race included tighter regulations based on those used by the Royal Ocean Racing Club of Britain.

Spectators watching the start of the 2006 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. © Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

It has been run every year since, and the fortunes of the event have varied. There has been consistent strong public interest, and crowds line the harbour and its foreshores to watch the Boxing Day start, a tradition in parallel with the Melbourne Boxing Day Test match.

Media interest is not confined to the east coast; the race is followed throughout the country and the results are reported internationally. The attention is often on who will finish first, and the focus on this line honours contest has been encouraged to maintain the media interest. Vessels from overseas have raced regularly with the local fleet since the early 1960s, and the race has been won on handicap and line honours by a modest number of craft from outside Australia.

It quickly became recognised as one of the major offshore races, along with the famous Fastnet race in the UK and the Bermuda race starting in the USA, due to the tough and demanding conditions the fleet usually has to overcome. In response to this, the CYCA established good safety precautions quite early on, which for many years it updated in line with the evolution of the participating craft. It often established precautions or limits not enforced in other events. From 1951 onwards there has been a radio relay vessel accompanying the fleet, and safety items carried by the boats and crew remain a priority in the organisation of the race.