The Race That Wasn’t Mine: a Celebration

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When my plane landed in Hobart, it started raining. By the time I got into a cab to the city, it was pouring down. “You were lucky that the plane landed at all,” – said the cab driver. “It’s a big storm so planes are very likely to be diverted to Melbourne.”

I didn’t feel very lucky. That was my first time in Hobart, and the original plan was to get here by boat as part of the 70th Sydney to Hobart race, yet we had to abandon 2.5 hours into the race due to mechanical problems with the boat. “There is always next year,” – said the cab driver, echoing numerous other people, and I nodded and smiled.

The flight from Sydney to Hobart takes less than 2 hours. The record on a sailing boat is currently 1 day 18 hours and 20 minutes. I was on a much slower boat than Wild Oats that still holds this record, a boat in the slowest division, so we would still have been in Bass Strait by the time I landed, had the circumstances been different. As it was, I was going to watch a few of my friends finish the race and celebrate with them.

Despite abandoning the race, I still had a crew pass with my name on it to get into the sailing club in Hobart but almost nobody goes there after the race. After parking the boat in the Constitution dock, most crews head straight to the Customs House Hotel across the road.

It’s a nice coastal walk from the club to the dock despite a fairly steep hill at the start of it, and as I was walking I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to see my friends finish the race. I was tracking several boats’ progress; Southern Excellence (Volvo 70), Khaleesi (DK 46), Dare Devil (Farr/Cookson 47), Pazazz (Cookson 40) and TSA Management (Sydney 38). I wished my mates who were sailing these boats well and I was cheering for them as they climbed up the IRC standings. It was still hard not to think how unfair it was that we were out of the race so fast that we didn’t have a chance to make a single mistake let alone experience the race in full. And as I read reports about other boats having issues and abandoning the race I couldn’t help being a little comforted by the fact that we were not alone; I was not proud of that feeling and I hoped to shake it by going to Hobart and by celebrating my mates’ achievements – instead of my own.

My first glimpse of the finish line was sudden. I saw a boat before anything else; then I saw the yellow buoys. The rain was over yet there were white caps and huge gusts all over the water. The boat was carrying a storm jib and deeply reefed main and it was till heeling a little too much as gusts hit it.

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As the boat reached the finish line, there was a loud horn sound from the tower and a few people gathered on the shore clapped and cheered. And I cheered too. My friends from Khaleesi were due to finish about half an hour later.

They chose the right side of the course and were tacking painfully all the way to the line; my heart was racing as if it hoped to win, too. My eyes tingled and my chest felt too full as if I breathed in too much air. I was extremely happy and unbelievably upset at the same time, the bitter-sweet combination normally alien to me. I clapped and I cheered and I ran to the Constitution dock to see the boats come in and I hugged my mates and congratulated them on what they had achieved.

They were tired and sunburnt and their lips were dry and blistering from the sun. They grumbled that they could’ve done better as I helped them pack their storm jib. They didn’t want crowds and cheering as they were rafting up at the dock. They told me there were sorry about what happened to our boat.

We were lucky that our rudder gave out when it did and not in Bass Strait; we couldn’t have done anything to prevent it. Yet all the reasonable explanations and logic fade in the face of a major disappointment, when you try to come to grips with reality; reason is just not enough sometimes.

And amid the stories of my friends being hit by unpredicted 50 knots, about owners and unreasonable crew members, about code zeros dragged behind the boat and 30 knot boat speed, amid all the drinking, rum, beers, wine, amid the crowds that felt like CYCA without non-sailing people, amid all the noise and conversations, I felt like I was still part of it all; that despite being heart-broken I could still go on and be happy – genuinely happy – for the friends who have completed the race and weren’t robbed of that achievement.

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My First Sydney to Hobart: the Shortest Offshore Race

The crew of Bear Necessity (minus one taking the photo)

The crew of Bear Necessity (minus one taking the photo).

The 70th Sydney to Hobart race has been one of the most exciting Hobarts so far with two maxis fighting for line honours and the rest of the fleet travelling so close together that a handicap win seems possible for just about anyone. Anyone, that is, who is still in the race.

I was part of this race for two and a half hours.

We started with a reef in our main, white caps all around us, harbour boiling with life, news helicopters over our heads. The media is mostly interested in the northern start line where super maxis tussle with each other. Comanche, an American newcomer, was first to leave the harbour this year, and in a few hours we will know whether Wild Oats XI gets their 8th line honours in a row. No matter what happens, there will be plenty of excitement about that finish.

Meanwhile, there were two more start lines with smaller, slower boats that didn’t star in any of the media photos. Most of them don’t have corporate sponsorships or rock star professional sailors. They – or should I say we –  still invest a lot of time and effort into being in the race.

During any event like that there are always people who grumble that tax payer money should not be wasted on saving sailors who participate in dangerous races. Such comments come from people who have no idea about safety requirements for races like that. There are safety inspections and safety courses for survival at sea; first aid courses and experience requirements. And of course there are hours of training for everyone who want to do well in the race. So if you are doing Sydney to Hobart, chances are, your entire year will revolve around this race.

It might not be true for everyone but it was definitely true for us. “Bear Necessity” changed owners earlier this year and since then work on the boat never really stopped. John, the new owner, bought new sails and a life raft,  replaced part of the standing rigging, replaced all sheets, braces and halyards. We did all blue water races leading to S2H and harbour races in between. There were safety inspections, frustrations and arguments, anticipation and doubts, crew changes and preparations, and whatever happened, there was an ultimate goal – completing the Sydney to Hobart race, a first for all but two crew members.

The start

After the start, Southern start line

It looked well for us for a while. “Bear” loves a bit of wind, and we were second over the start line, despite an unnamed competitor who tried to force us down and ignored our polite requests to stay up. We decided against shaking the reef out for the short reach in the lee and soon enough we were out of the harbour beating into choppy seas. The crew on the rail was doused with water every two minutes, sunscreen washed off our faces. The breeze kept growing, we put the second reef in and got back on the rail. We were doing well.

But there was trouble brewing at the back of the boat. The helm started behaving erratically. I wasn’t aware of that for a while until I heard a call for a screwdriver. Too soon after that John called us all back into the pit and said, “Look, I am sorry but we cannot go to Hobart. The rudder bearing is about to go, we’ll lose control of the boat.”

We bore away and dropped the headsail, stunned. Then started the motor. The race was over for us, two and a half hours into it.

As we were motoring back in, we surfed the waves that were now behind us and listened to the helicopters above us. We made the news but for all the wrong reasons. I thought about all the people who wished me luck for my first Hobart, about a pharmacist who wrote the name of our boat on his wrist to look us up on the tracker, my colleagues, my family and friends. My phone was still off but once I turned it back on, it started overflowing with messages of support. I’ve been told stories of people who did not complete Hobart until their 4th or even 7th attempt; stories of seasick boat owners and ripped kites. A friend of mine sent me an itinerary for Tasmania to make sure that I don’t just go home and mope for the rest of the year, devastated. I am extremely grateful for all the support.

7 more boats had to abandon the race on that first day, including the “people’s maxi”, Brindabella, that had a very similar damage to ours. I knew that my mate on Brindas would probably be even more upset than me.

Whatever the situation is, someone will always say that everything happens for a reason, that perhaps it’s for the best. I hope to find a lesson in whatever happens. Yet I also know that we are looking for meaning in everything just because it’s easier to live that way. We need to think that life makes sense on some level, we add structure to pure randomness, we fight chaos. The thing is, the rudder bearing damage was totally random. It wasn’t that typical, there was no reason to look for it specifically. It was just one of these things that could not be predicted. Shit happens and it did happen this time.  We abandoned the race before the damage to the boat became dangerous to the crew.

I was planning to decide whether I liked offshore sailing enough to go on after this race. Should I just concentrate on racing my own boat inshore, plane under a kite instead of fighting off fatigue offshore at three in the morning? Do I like long offshore races that much? I am still not entirely sure. What I definitely know is that I have an unfinished business now. I am following the tracker obsessively, wishing all my mates luck in the race (one of them managed to crack a couple of ribs on the first day!), and I wish with all my heart that I was still racing against them.

Sydney to Hobart 2015, here I come. 363 days to go.

Rush’n to Sail

Rush when I saw her for the first timeI bought a boat.

Not just any boat, a sports boat. One of the last Young 780s ever produced called “Rush”.

By the time I decided to buy “Rush” I had been thinking of buying a boat for about a year. I knew it would be the worst financial investment I could possibly make, a black hole for money and time. There are a lot of jokes about boat ownership and I had heard them all. Still, the thought persisted and I kept looking around. “F-Sharp”, the boat I helmed for a season, was for sale – yet I found it hard to get excited about it. There is nothing wrong with a Sonata 8, it’s inexpensive and fairly sturdy. “Rush”, on the other hand…

“Rush” is a very light boat. She does not just sit on her mooring, she dances around it as if impatient to go sailing. “My wife is afraid of “Rush”, – the old owner admitted as I was sitting on the boat with the agent, a friend who found it for me. A very light boat with a huge sail area is bound to be scary at times, especially with a kite up. She gets on a plane very easily. There are no lifelines. There are no comforts on the boat at all – but she seems to be very impatient to go sailing. Just like me.

And she’s beautiful. When I look at her I can’t help thinking how pretty she is, every single time. It feels like love.

“I like the name,” I told my friend the agent. “Because you know, it’s “Rush” and I am Russian.”

His face lit up and he said, “You should add an apostrophe and an “n” to the name!”

And I did. The new name is “Rush’n”.

The old stickers were a nightmare to remove. On the Melbourne Cup day, a big Australia-wide celebration of gambling and fancy hats, I slipped out of the office straight after the race while my co-workers were partaking of the provided beverages and snacks. I was carrying a bag with a hairdryer and a razor blade. The old sticker on one side came off fairly easily with a bit of persuasion from the hairdryer. The other side would not budge at all, no matter what we did. The next day I tried a domestic steam cleaner. It increased the speed of removal to about a centimetre in 30 minutes. I removed the lower part of “R” before I dropped the steam cleaner off the ladder one time too many, rendering it unusable. By that time my arms felt unusable, too. The result prompted a few people to ask whether the name of the boat was now Push.

We did eventually got the old name off with a rubber wheel that I bought on eBay specifically for the purpose. Overall, the process of getting the new decals on the hull involved 7 people – my wonderful friends who helped me with advice and printing, provided drills (to use the rubber wheel) and manpower, told me not to stress about silly things and eventually got the new sticker on.

IMG_0451I am still clueless when it comes to working on boats. When I was towing the boat with a tender kindly provided by another friend I was thinking about a book I read about a year ago. A guy with no experience in sailing decided to sail around the world, spent all his savings on a boat and crashed it into the marina almost immediately. I didn’t crash mine but at times I was overwhelmed by helplessness because I didn’t know how to do so many things. I read the surveyor’s report (finishing with “fast boat, very little to do”) and had to look up “split rings” on Wikipedia. I have a to-do list for the boat stored in Evernote, it’s all very organised, but I only know how to do a couple of items on the list by myself – they involve climbing the mast and buying things.

The stereotype has it that boat owners are rich. And some of them are. Other boat owners are resourceful and good at working on boats. I am neither of these things – but I love my boat and I’m determined to keep her going.

I found a very long thread about Young 780s on Sailing Anarchy and read all of it before buying the boat. I read that one guy bought a Young 780, raced it, got scared shitless by it and then kept it in a trailer for about 10 years. The former owner of my boat claims that it was “Rush”. He himself owns too many boats so he wasn’t sailing her that much – yet every time he sailed he was getting good results. His extremely experienced crew also managed to break the rig so I got the boat with a brand new mast, a boom and spreaders. A few things still need adjusting. The main gets out of the track very easily, the vang snapped off the boom during the very first race because it wasn’t secured properly. There are many things to do, the list is long.

I was expecting a steep learning curve and it’s definitely steep. A boat doesn’t win races by herself. I am inviting people I can learn from and I am trying to be patient. Yet it doesn’t escape me that the funniest thing of all is that after writing about being a boat slut I almost immediately committed to a boat.

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“Why are you buying a boat?” – said one of the kindest skippers I know. “You can sail on my boat any time!” And I will. I learned so much from other people that I don’t intend to stop sailing on other boats. Yet my heart is now taken and it belongs to “Rush’n”, a temperamental sports boat that still needs a bit of work.