Speech by the skipper of
(a Beneteau First 38) about the 1998
Sydney to Horbart Race. Given at the Awards Ceremony. January 2, 1999.
Winner of Division 1, Second Place.
Original Speech & Picture
"I'd like to be a sailor - a sailor bold and bluff
Calling out "Ship Ahoy" in manly tones and gruff
I'd learn to box the compass and to reef and tack and luff
I'd sniff and sniff the briny breeze and never get enough
Perhaps I'd chew tobacco, or an old black pipe I'd puff
But I wouldn't be a sailor if the sea was very rough"
These words were written by CJ Dennis in 1921 - and I suppose we
all share the same sentiment. We would all like to go sailing except
when the sea is very rough. Well I am here to confirm what most of
you already know - that during the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race the sea
was very rough.
I should like with your indulgence relate to you my thoughts and
memories of the race.
I was very pleased to be sailing with my brother Christopher on
the Avanti or the Mighty Avanti as she is affectionately known in the
upper echelons of the yachting elite. When we picked her up in Sydney
last February we discussed the prospect of doing a Sydney to Hobart
Race. Christopher started to research what would be required to
achieve such a feat. He continually quoted the AYF blue book, various
requirements of Category One and reminded me of the associated costs.
Category 1, which I hasten to add Avanti, was a long way off. He
seemed in no hurry and started talking 1999.
I knew time was running out. If I didn't get Christopher to the
starting line - being the quick learner that he is - he would figure
out exactly how much it does cost to do a Sydney Hobart campaign. The
trouble with Christopher is he is smarter than you think - next thing
I knew he was actually getting me to help with the costs.
Irrespective of the costs, the crew, and in particular Christopher
did a wonderful and thorough job preparing Avanti for the race. I
think it was an eye opener and a good learning experience for him.
Other than giving plenty of advise I played only a minor role in the
yachts preparation. Christopher and Tom Phelan sailing to Sydney
short handed and even encountering an Easterly gale on the
So casual was my involvement that I flew to Sydney on Boxing Day
morning and stepped aboard with only about 4 hours to go to the
start. From that moment it was race mode though. Better meet the crew
and sought out who is on which watch etc. Put a few thoughts together
about a morale boosting chat we would have on the way to the starting
line - I contemplated a few words like - now look guys we are not
going to win anything and we all want to get to Hobart so lets not
break anything and lets just enjoy ourselves and have a good time.
Quite a casual attitude that is until the warning signal - you just
can't help yourself. John, I was thinking with a few seconds to go -
jealously guarding prime spot on the Sydney Hobart Race start line in
a 12 year old Beneteau cruiser. I suppose it got our photos in the
As many of you will know the top ocean racing campaigns not only
use the traditional weather forecasting services as provided by the
race organisers but they retain the services of the professional
forecasters - the likes of Roger Badham or Clouds as he is known to
all the top yachties in circles from Olympics to Americas Cup..
Now the Avanti budget did not run to the cost of retaining Roger,
even if he does give you a floppy disk included in the price. So when
I spied him walking out along the marina, to do business with Bernie
Case on Marchioness. I hurriedly got myself aboard the Marchioness to
wish Bernie a Happy Christmas. It was not my fault if I overheard the
odd weather forecast. During the course of my eavesdropping I learnt
that one of the models that they had run was for a bomb to hit us -
but Roger hastened to add it was not his preferred option. He thought
we would get 40-50 knots. I do remember thinking about the bomb
option and storing it at the back of the grey matter.
The weather at the start was anything but what we were to
encounter 24 hours later. We cleared the Heads in a typical Sydney
North Easterly Breeze and set sail to Hobart, spinnakers billowing.
Not a bad way to settle a boat and crew down, sailing towards the
target at about 8 knots --wind increasing, speed also 10's and 12's
plus of course the continental shelf current. Add another 1 or 2.
Naturally the rivalry and competition between steerers added to the
This is great - making fabulous progress south but as always it
won't last, we gybe across just after dark as already the breeze is
going to the west. The gybe although controlled was sufficiently
violent to break the main boom completely in half. I remember
thinking great just great - 500 miles to go with a tri sail. If only
on reflection I would have gladly done that. The attitude on Avanti
was so different to the win at all costs campaigns I have so often
been involved with. Many top racers upon breaking a boom and 500
miles to go would simply turn home. That option was not even
discussed on Avanti.
We soldiered on through the night and the next morning, and as the
breeze continued to increase we continually convinced ourselves that
we were not losing out with our reduced rig.
It was not long before we didn't need much convincing. In fact it
was true. We were doing just fine under a storm jib sized roller
headsail and trisail - blowing 40 - 45 knots.
I am not precisely sure of the time but approx. between noon and 2
pm on the 27th Chris told me that he had just heard Sword of Orion
reporting 80 knots of wind. I remember asking are you sure - yes was
the clear reply - also the way the glass was dropping - it was free
falling down to a low of 980 from 1012. I knew it to be
I remember thinking this breeze is just continuing to build - it
is not going to stop. This is the bomb model - alright - OK. We are
here now. What to do - 80 knots I heard Swords message repeated. This
is for real. We set about rigging Avanti for a hurricane - trisail
down and storm jib courtesy of our roller furler reduced even
further. I settled on about the same sail area as a sabot.
Remembering a story that Meyer Page had told me about a furler coming
undone in a storm, so concerned was I at the prospect of having a
full headsail adrift in 70-80 knots that I made one of my very rare
visits to the foredeck. Let me assure you I used every knot in the
scouts manual and a few of my own inventions to secure that headsail.
There was no way it was going to come undone.
The conditions in a hurricane are adequately and accurately
described in Beaufort Force 12. Hurricane 64-71 knots, 14.0 metre
waves. Air filled with foam, sea completely white with driving spray;
visibility greatly reduced. That just about describes it
By the time most ocean racing boats encounter a hurricane the
living conditions below are usually a shambles and the crew are
fatigued and often sick. The interior is often awash with wet sails
following the many changes of sail area until the yacht is
suitability attired to deal with a hurricane. Not so the Avanti - the
mainsail was long gone and neatly rolled and stored below, whilst the
roller furler genoa, which had been the brunt of many a jibe from the
more competitive racers had served us well. We had a dry and tidy
boat below - dry bunks and good quality food - so different to other
times I had encountered conditions such as these.
Our major asset was the calibre and depth of the crew. We had
eight people aboard - a good mix of experience and all in good health
- all able to assist in sailing through this nuisance of a
From information gathered from the forecast we deducted that the
storm would moderate on the next afternoon. So we only had to sail
through a hurricane for 12 hours. We can do that I thought - we have
a dry boat and a good and able crew. On previous occasions I have
found crew burn out to be a major problem, and often the workload is
left to too few. After re assuring everyone that our plan was to
continue on to Hobart and to nurse the boat through the storm and the
boat will do her bit and look after us etc. The crew were also
reminded where the flares and life jackets were stored. I also for
the first time in my sailing career instructed everyone whether on
deck or below to wear a life harness and stay in wet weather clothes
until further notice. This was a serious storm.
The strategy we developed on Avanti for managing the storm is what
I term hanging to the storm. The principle is simple but effective.
The boat requires very little sail area, just the smallest of storm
jib or staysail, jib sheet marginally cracked and the idea is to keep
the boat high to the breeze, feathering for the most part and only
pulling away a little when the boat feels just a little too stalled.
In 70 knots of wind that not too often I can assure you. This set up
gives the boat sufficient forward motion to manoeuver in and around
most of the seas. This method particularly suited us, as prior to the
storm, we were further to the east of the Rhumbline than I would have
preferred, and we could now sail above course and still had the
current sending us south. The temptation to crack off and speed south
we did not consider a safe option. It would have put the yacht more
beam on and greatly increase the risk of rolling over.
All of our steerers mastered the technique quickly and we were
confident in the boat and each other to press on. The vital thing we
were missing was steering goggles. I can't believe we had left them
off our inventory. So important are they in a hurricane that I have
recommended to the review committee that they be included in Category
One. I am sure Christopher won't mind forking out a few more dollars
rather than have his face and eyeballs sand blasted. The effect of
the spray on the steerers faces was so severe that if we were not
able to rotate them so easily we would have had a much more difficult
time. Some of us still had sore eyes on arrival in Hobart - some
others got their sore eyes whilst in Hobart.
The other major change to our routine was to alter the watch
system for the storm. We had been running the 4 hours on and 4 hours
off standard system up till that time. It was a waste and
unnecessarily dangerous to have 4 people on deck so we ran two people
up at a time, usually doing only 1 = hours to 2 hours. The remaining
six rested below, in wet weather gear and safety harnesses. The idea
was to rotate everybody and get through the night - daylight always
seems less frightening. After the storm we reverted to our original
As I previously mentioned the Beaufort description of a force 12
mentions the height of the waves at 14 metres. Now that is true - but
not all the waves are that high - some are even bigger - probably 18
- 20 metres high. In daylight at least you can see these waves coming
3 - 4 waves away. It is a frightening prospect - it is like waiting
for a injection or waiting for the dentist to commence drilling. More
often than not these waves will collapse before they get to you.
However, Avanti had trouble with 3 of these waves. Two in daylight
and one in darkness.
The two waves we encountered in daylight were monstrous. Avanti
had no hope of making it to the top in time, only getting 2/3 of the
way leaving 20 ft of breaking water to crash down on the boat. It
seems to take forever for the water to clear - your heart is pumping
until you can check that you lookout companion is still aboard and
uninjured. The experience inevitably starts the conversation - God
that was big - Yeah - at least 60 ft - no bigger I reckon, and so
The other monstrous wave that we had the misfortune to deal with
came as I mentioned in darkness. The major difference with this
monster was that it was more beam on than the previous two. Avanti
tilted 90 degrees then suddenly more, probably 135 - 140 degrees and
then began this enormous slide down the face of the wave she had just
failed to sail up. This one really did take forever. There was an
urgent race to the companionway by the 6 of us below - all anxious as
to the welfare of Arno, and Murphy on deck. Arno, an Austrian who had
Whitbread and Admirals Cup experiences under his belt and with his
sense of humour replied all was OK but Murphy's cigarette had gone
My immediate response was to busy the crew below tidying ship,
which was now a mess, whilst leaving Arno and Murphy on deck for a
short while. My motive was that I did not want to make a big deal of
the knockdown. The crew had been fine and I did not want them spooked
by the this experience. Not with only a few hours to go until
daylight and the weather expected to abate soon after. I needn't have
worried. My admiration for the crew was never more so than at this
time. They all remained calm - within a short time we had a tidy
cabin again and Murphy and Arno were relieved of their watch by Tommy
Phelan and Christopher.
Even in a hurricane and even after a knockdown you can have a
sense of humour. As we were cleaning we found a camera and
chronometer that had landed in the fridge - Useful someone commented
- we would now know what time to eat and the camera could be used for
freeze frame shots.
Another humourous moment was when Debbi Cohn, an American yelled
that we were about to be run over by a very fast ship. I raced to
look and saw port and starboard lights (red and green) and an orange
flasher. As this ship was about to run us down as it surely appeared
it was about to, I suddenly remembered red/green and orange flasher -
oh that's a hovercraft - no John don't say it - you don't have
hovercrafts in hurricanes - but you do have helicopters and suddenly
we realised we had a chopper hovering 50 ft overhead, shining a
searchlight on us. After a quick radio chat with Telstra Control we
informed them we were Ok and the chopper banked steeply and
disappeared into the night and the storm. I made the comment that
believe it or not I would rather be on this yacht Avanti in this
hurricane than in that crazy whirly bird up there. But thank God
there are people crazy enough to fly them. Yes thank God
Early the next day the storm did abate and I recall prompting the
discussion with the crew about not being shell shocked and perhaps we
should put the trisail back up - after all the breeze was down to 40
knots. It was not long before we had a consensus and up it went. As
the storm abated further we began to consider how we could set the
main sail without a boom. Well the ingenious crew of Avanti under the
guidance of Peter Brazier, our resident inventor- Not only did they
work out how to do it, they also worked out how to reef as well,
which was required several times before reaching Hobart. I am sure
you will be interested to know that there will be an instructional
video coming out soon.
As you can well imagine we were elated with our achievement at
arriving in Hobart, and of course our unexpected fine result on
handicap. Our celebration was of course short lived when we learnt of
the tragedies that had occurred during the race, especially for
myself when I learnt that the race had in fact claimed the life of my
very close friend Jim Lawler who had perished with the sinking of the
Winston Churchill - which ironically I had done my first Sydney to
Hobart Race on in 1969.
I should like to take just a moment more of your time to expand my
theories on sailing in conditions as we encountered in last years
Sydney to Hobart Race.
As identified in the Fastnet report of 1979 there are basically
four options available
1. Continue sailing into the storm
2. Hove to
3. Bare Poles
4. Run before the storm
My personal belief is that the two best options are to actively
continue to sail into the storm or actively run before it - passive
sailing I believe is not suitable to the modern yacht.
If you decide, as we did, to sail into the storm it is imperative
that you have the correct rig. It will not surprise me if the
reviewers of the race decide to look at the size of storm sails,
which are currently restricted as a percentage of rig dimensions,
irrespective of the weight of the vessel.. A number of very
experienced competitors I have spoken to since the race share my
belief that a lot of storm sails are too big - you are not racing
when you are just surviving.
The other option in my opinion is to actively run before the storm
- I do stress the word actively. Simply turning your back to a storm
does not necessarily provide sanctuary. In fact to the contrary I
believe that a yacht not properly managed down wind is in danger and
in more peril than any other option. It must seem in moments of
despair sailing into a storm an easy option to just turn around and
all the misery will be over - not always. Many of the competitors who
decided they would enjoy their hurricane experience at some other
time, decided to make for Eden for shelter and for some of these
yachts, depending on where they were on the course, were beam on to
the seas and you are all aware of some of the results of this course
of action. More damage was done to yachts after they had retired from
racing. Please do not confuse my opinion with not respecting the
decision to retire.
However, I can assure you that I would never run before a severe
storm without trailing warps - long warps and anchor into at least
the wave behind, into the 2nd wave even better.
I would be remiss if I did not use this forum to thank all of the
supportpeople aboard Telstra Control and the rescue personnel who
risked their own lives to save others during the race. We are so
lucky in Australia to have such brave men and women to perform such
heroic deeds. If ever you hear anyone rambling about taxpayers money
etc - please do me a favour put a sock in their mouth.
I should also like to thank the crew of Avanti for their
performance and also for you for listening to my story.