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.

How To Make Your Dreams Come True

When I tell people that I dreamed about sailing when I was a little girl growing up in landlocked Siberia, they are usually impressed. It is a good story, not in the least because it’s true. I sewed a ridiculous looking sailor’s hat for myself and glued pictures of boats into a special notebook. My Dad brought books about sailing from his business trips and built impressive tall ship models for my benefit. The books I read were about adventures and high seas and boys who loved sailing, and I would go to sleep wishing that I saw the ocean in my dreams. These days, 20 years later, I live in Sydney, Australia, and I go sailing one or two days a week (yes, my weekends are pretty full). It’s a dream come true, and people who are patient enough to listen or read to the end of my sailing story usually tell me, that’s great, keep manifesting your dreams!

That’s not the whole story though.

When I was seven, I knew nothing about modern sailboats. I had never heard of Sydney to Hobart or America’s Cup or a Voyage for Madmen; when I thought of a sailing boat I imagined a square rig and a bunch of frivolously dressed pirates. Women on a boat were supposed to be bad luck (these days sailors seem to object to bananas much more than to women). I had never seen a big body of water so my imagination was pretty vague on the subject of wind, waves and my reaction to them. Being able to regularly sail a dinghy (like a couple of boys in one of my favourite books) seemed inconceivable, a privilege for much luckier people than me. To be honest, I never thought it possible that I would be sailing for real.

On the other hand, it didn’t make me unhappy and it never stopped me from dreaming.

I had other dreams when I was little, too. First, there was my love for music. I insisted on learning to play the piano. My singing never failed to tug at adults’ heartstrings and they encouraged me to sing the sweetest and saddest songs I knew. Sometimes when I sang for myself I imagined that a world expert in singing would be walking past our apartment’s door by a pure coincidence and he would suddenly stop, stricken by the sheer power and magnetic quality of my voice (which was not, alas, that powerful in reality). He would ring the doorbell and tell my proud parents that I am extremely talented. I wasn’t quite sure what was supposed to happen after that. The funniest thing is that I sang in a choir until I turned 14 and was not particularly interested in singing solo. These days I do tend to hog the microphone when we have a karaoke night but I am reluctant to say that it has anything to do with manifesting my dreams.

Another fantasy of mine was being a reporter on TV. I would be standing in one of those famous Soviet queues with my mother and would imagine holding a microphone and commenting on everything around me to amuse and educate a captivated audience. Too bad I don’t remember any of my commentary. Many years later when I had a chance to choose between specialising in TV/radio or newspapers/magazines for my degree in journalism I didn’t hesitate to pick the print media.

I also wished I could draw but even then it didn’t seem like I was any good at it.

And of course my biggest dream was about writing.

Here in Australia I talk to good surfers and sailors who seem to be light years ahead of me in terms of expertise (if I try really hard, I can probably catch a small wave by myself. On a pretty big board. If I’m lucky). They all tell me that they started surfing/sailing when they were pretty small. It is about as much use to me as telling me that inheriting money is a good way to get rich. I did start writing as soon as I learned the alphabet though. First I started keeping a diary and I regularly consulted my parents on rules and traditions of writing in a journal. For example, I was reluctant to mention the diary in the diary itself (I wasn’t a big fan of recursion). After a while I tried my hand at writing adventure novels (never finished) and stories about perfect families (so that my parents could learn from example. I read a magazine about bringing up children on a regular basis and couldn’t help feeling that my parents could use some of my newly found wisdom).

These days I am still writing and still having troubles finishing my novels.

My point is, I had plenty of dreams while growing up. Some of them came true, most of them didn’t. I at least tried a few of the things I dreamed about. I also tried a lot of stuff that I never imagined doing while growing up – like moving to another country all by myself, speaking a completely different language, surfing, joking with a recruitment agent, driving a car on the left side of the road and parking it in a giant shopping centre. And I enjoyed almost all of it (except parking).

And I think that ultimately this is an even more compelling story.

It’s impossible to realise all your dreams, every single one of them. Dreams are evasive and they tend to evaporate when you look at them too closely. The more dreams you have though, the better off you are. At least one of them might come true one day – and be even better than you have ever imagined. At least that’s true about my sailing.

And it also makes sense to try new things. You can never do everything but you sure can enjoy whatever the hell you have the opportunity to experience. And as long as you keep your heart open, you can find something that is worth dreaming about when you least expect it.