Dictionary of Sydney

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Sydney to Hobart yacht race

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Sydney to Hobart yacht race

Sydney Harbour and boat races have gone together for a long time. One writer, referring to 'what may fairly be termed the national sport of the colony, boat-racing', has left us with a lyrical description of a typical race day on the harbour:

… the glancing waters, fresh with the breeze that prevailed throughout the day, were studded by a thousand boats of every description, all freighted with life and gaiety; and round the harbour, from every point commanding a view of the course prescribed for the contesting boats, gay parties were assembled. [1]

This was 26 January, Foundation Day (also known as Anniversary Day, now called Australia Day) in 1848, and it showed the sense of adventure and exhilaration associated with yachting that has continued to be felt on Sydney Harbour.

The most famous race that has emerged is the Sydney to Hobart, as it is locally known. The race covers 628 nautical miles, starting from Sydney Harbour at 1 pm on Boxing Day (26 December), as it has done for over six decades. It has been held every year since 1945, with the inaugural fleet of nine yachts growing to a record 371 starters in the 50th race in 1994 – the largest fleet in the world for a Category 1 Ocean Race. In 2007, 82 yachts took part.

Postwar celebration

It all began in 1945, when a group of Sydney yachtsmen started planning for a post-World War II cruise to Hobart. Captain John Illingworth, who was a British Royal Navy officer stationed in Sydney at the time, had been a keen racing yachtsman in Britain before the war. He bought the 39-foot (11.8-metre) Rani, and joined them.

Because of weather conditions, the race is rarely without incident: in the first, several of the boats were briefly 'lost' during the race, among them Rani, although it did complete the course to take both 'line' (first over the line) and 'handicap' (corrected time for type of yacht) honours.

In 1984, a fleet of 150 yachts started, but 104 retired in the face of 'strong to gale force' southerly winds that battered the fleet. In 1993, there were 110 starters, but only 38 finished: crews abandoned two yachts as they sank, while the skipper of another was washed overboard and spent five hours in high seas. Luckily he was spotted by a search vessel and picked up by another yacht.

Stormy weather

In 1998 the race became a major disaster, when wild storms took their toll. The 115-yacht fleet sailed into the worst weather in the Sydney to Hobart's history. Six sailors died and just 44 yachts survived the gale-force winds and mountainous seas to finish the race. Two crew members died on the Launceston yacht Business Post Naiad, one by drowning, the other from a heart attack at the height of the storm. Several yachts were sent to the bottom and the biggest maritime rescue operation in Australia's history was mounted to pluck about 50 sailors from the sea. The storm highlighted some of the more foolhardy aspects of the race and led to a major review of race procedures. The ensuing enquiry made several recommendations for raising safety standards and requirements for competitors.

Despite such risks, the Sydney to Hobart is one of the great ocean races of the globe. No other annual yachting event in the world attracts such huge media coverage and popular attention.

The weather risks are not the only source of controversy. In 1990, a spokesman for the NSW Cancer Council ruffled a few cravats by claiming that the name and logo of the British yacht Rothmans breached the NSW voluntary advertising code – which stated that any vehicles propelled by petrol, diesel, gas, solar or wind power were banned from advertising cigarettes. This was in the midst of a war between tobacco companies – who were denying any adverse effects of smoking – and doctors and public health advocates, so it saw much heated debate. Gin-and-tonics were spilt at the bar.

While many of the same yachts compete around the world, and their focus is on the longer campaign to be best in Category 1, for many locals the Sydney to Hobart race is itself the point of it all. In its early years, the race was dominated by 'amateurs', many of whom were Wednesday and Saturday sailors for their local clubs. But over the years, the race has attracted the rich and famous, and many such Australians have been competitors: Alan Bond, and Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch among them. The race has also attracted well-known sailors from overseas: Ted Turner, the founder of CNN cable network in the USA, for one, while Sir Edward Heath skippered Morning Cloud to victory in 1969, a year before he became Prime Minister of Britain.

The yachts

Nowadays, major corporations sponsor both yachts and the race itself. Many yachts now have names like Alfa Romeo, Nokia, Skandia, Porsche, Hugo Boss, and Credit Index Leopard, while the race itself was, in 2008, the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, after the race's organiser, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, negotiated a multi-year sponsorship deal with the prominent international company Rolex.

The 2007 winner of line honours, Wild Oats XI, is only the second boat to win in three consecutive years; the first was Morna, in 1948. There have been several repeat winners, like 1975 and 1977 line honours winner Kialoa III.

Names can linger on, even though the boat itself has changed. There have been various famous Gretels and Helsals: the original Helsal took line honours in 1973 and set a race record, while Helsal IV competed in 2007.

On the other hand, some boats like Ragamuffin keep starting year after year: her placings in the Sydney to Hobart include a second in 1986 and two thirds, in 1985 and 1989 respectively. Among the fleet in 1994 were two yachts that had started in the inaugural race – Archina and Winston Churchill. Among the crews that year were two yachtsmen, Peter Luke and 'Boy' Messenger, by then in their 70s, who had sailed in 1945. Probably the 'grand old man' of the race is Syd Fischer, now in his eighties, who in 2008 competed in his fortieth Sydney to Hobart race.


Sail-world.com website, 'Rolex Sydney Hobart Milstone Race, Overall Winners Announced', http://www.sail-world.com/Australia/Rolex-Sydney-Hobart-Milestone-Race,-Overall-Winners-Announced/52428, viewed 20 February 2009

Official Site of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, http://rolexsydneyhobart.com/default.asp, viewed 20 February 2009

Cruising Yacht Club of Australia website, http://www.cyca.com.au/, viewed 20 February 2009


[1] BC Peck, Recollections of Sydney, John Mortimer, London, 1850, pp 150–1