Racing against the elements

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 July, 2006, 12:00am

Charles Dickens said the wind can sound like a distant giant whistling for his dog. On a small sailing vessel in the midst of a vast empty ocean, with the winds blasting through the rigging at more than 50 knots, giants no longer whistle - they shriek.

In Bass Strait, the notorious and unpredictable stretch of water between the Australian mainland and the island of Tasmania, these near-hurricane strength winds have by now whipped the waves up into cascading swells the size of three and four-storey buildings. The boat falls off the crest of these towering monsters into the trough below with an impact that sets off a knee-weakening shudder, threatening to rip the hull apart.

On deck, the mixture of salt spray and rain blown horizontally by the howling winds feels like sandpaper - literally peeling the skin off those exposed parts of your face as you desperately try to peer beyond the bow of the boat and pick the next wave as it rears up, breaks and sends a wall of cascading green sea into the cockpit, knocking your feet from under you.

Red-eyed, close to exhaustion from lack of sleep due to the constant noise and motion after three to four days of three-hourly watches followed by just three hours of rest or interrupted sleep on a wet sail below deck, you realise it's unlikely there are any atheists aboard.

It's about this time that every ocean yacht racer asks the question: 'What in hell am I doing here?'

The great paradox is that, almost without exception, the following year the very same ocean yacht racer will be back again, competing in what is regarded as one of the toughest sporting events in the world - the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.

Each year on Boxing Day some 100 sailing vessels, ranging from the billionaire's 25-metre hi-tech racers to tiny eight-metre weekender cruisers, line up in Sydney Harbour to compete in the 630 nautical-mile race down the east coast of Australia, across Bass Strait to the Tasmanian capital city of Hobart.

The lure of the race is perhaps inexplicable to the uninitiated. The bulk of the fleet and most competitors are neither millionaires indulging a passion nor professional yachtsmen, or yachting 'rock stars' as they are termed. For the most part, they are amateur weekend sailors, who see the race as the ultimate test of seamanship, teamwork and preparation.

Even though the race is held in the Australian summer, 'southerly buster' storms often make the Sydney-Hobart race cold, bumpy and challenging for the crew. It is a rare year when at least some boats do not retire due to breakages or damage - usually to Eden on the New South Wales south coast, the last sheltered harbour before the Bass Strait crossing.

And make no bones about the potential dangers of the event - in 1998, the race was marred by tragedy when, during an exceptionally strong storm which saw winds of more than 80 knots and waves as high as 20 metres, five boats sank and six people died, including some experienced seamen. Fifty-five yachtsmen had to be rescued, 50 of them by helicopters braving the gale-force winds. Of the 115 boats that started the race, only 44 made it to Hobart.

The previous year, media mogul Rupert Murdoch had lost the tip of his check-signing index finger while sailing on board Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison's maxi yacht Sayonara in a practice event. It's good to see that Mother Nature does not discriminate when handing out lessons.

For the big yachts, with their professional crews and multimillion-dollar budgets, the race is about line honours and television coverage for their sponsors. Packed with the latest communication gear, weather forecasting equipment and go-fast engineering, these are the yachting equivalent of Formula One cars with just one aim - to be the fastest and first boat to cross the finish line.

For those of us at the back of the fleet - sailing vessels that in comparable terms might be considered as second-hand family saloons - the objective is simply to finish, with as little damage to the yacht or its crew as possible.

And the key to that: leave nothing to chance; pay continuous and diligent attention to detail.

The reason for this is that in races such as the Sydney to Hobart, or the Hong Kong Vietnam Race later this year, for much of the time you are beyond the range of helicopter rescue or being able to call the local coast guard for assistance. If there is a crisis on board you and your crew need to deal with the knowledge that any help or assistance you may receive could be at least 12 to 24 hours away - a time interval which could well mean the difference between survival or death.

Preparation means you and your team of volunteers crawl over every inch of the boat in the weeks before any major offshore race. There is a vast difference between sailing around the buoys in a protected harbour compared to the stresses imposed on a yacht as it drops off the crest of even a five-metre wave. The resulting water pressure caused by the impact will pop hoses off thru-hull fittings, leading to a massive ingress of water and possible sinking. Every hose fitting and valve has to be checked and tightened, every connection and mechanical item lubricated and free to turn.

Down below in the galley and saloon, every drawer, cupboard and floorboard must be able to be securely fastened shut or down. In offshore races in big seas, it is not unusual for a boat to be completely turned upside down by a rogue wave - before righting itself. In the ensuing melee inside the cabin, an unsecured can of baked beans escaped from an unfastened locker is the equivalent of a deadly missile.

The crew I've sailed with on offshore races also religiously practices Man Overboard (MOB) drills before any event, using a 'real-life victim' in the water and not just a life preserver thrown over the side. Getting back alongside a victim lost overboard is just the first step. Recovering the full dead weight of a human up over the topside of a yacht through the life rails needs to be experienced and perfected in practice long before it becomes a real-life drama. Just ensure that your intended 'victim' is well padded and protected from the bruising they will receive as your crew manhandles them up over the side of the yacht.

In the wake of the 1998 tragedy, sailing's governing bodies around the world introduced strict new rules requiring that sailors competing in offshore racing events adhere to a comprehensive list of safety regulations. However, in many ways, even these fall short of what may be required.

The new rules state that at least two of any boat's crew must hold a Senior First Aid Certificate. But such first aid training is normally based on the premise that an ambulance or professional medical attention is minutes away - rather than hours or even a day.

The fact is you need to ensure that at least a few people on the boat can also give injections of painkillers such as morphine or a local anaesthetic, can suture wounds and, as your crewmates get older, perhaps even use a portable defibrillator.

So why would you do it? Well, there is a sense of achievement in just finishing a long offshore race in challenging conditions knowing that it has been the result of exemplary teamwork, good seamanship and the right preparation.

It is the sort of joy you feel when you get top marks in an examination or a promotion at work. You get to experience that sense of achievement with every offshore racing event. Of course, it is nice to win, but just finishing is worthy of a celebration - and that's where the real fun begins.