Speech by the skipper of Avanti (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"

Would you?


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 way. 

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 paper though.

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 interest.

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 true. 

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 perfectly.

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 hurricane.

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 watch system 

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 forth. 

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 out. 

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 indeed. 

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.