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.

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Bear Necessity: Newcastle to Bass Island race

This blog post is a little unusual: I wrote this text about our latest Blue Water Series race for the Balmain Sailing Club’s website so it’s a little different from my other blog entries, a little less personal perhaps (suffice it to say that I haven’t used the personal pronoun “I” once). Our good position in the final results is partially due to luck and favourable weather conditions; then again some of our prior failures (such as our results in the Southport race) could also be at least partially attributed to unlucky circumstances. This race was more enjoyable for me personally than the two previous long offshore races for a number of reasons, despite sleep deprivation whose effects I can still feel three days after reaching the finish line. One of the reasons is that one magic day when we surfed the waves from dawn till dusk, our big red spinnaker filling up with a gentle breeze.

The original story is here.

Simon helming (photo by David Stenhouse)

Simon helming (photo by David Stenhouse)

What do we know about “Bear Necessity”? The boat used to sail out of Middle Harbour and belonged to Andrew “the Bear” (hence the name). In 2014 the C&C 115 was sold to BSC’s own John Blair and despite his decision not to change the name to “Blair Necessity”, it is still very much a Balmain boat these days. The crew includes two former commodores of the club, its racing director and fairly active volunteers (including a former treasurer and a website captain). Rumours have it that during long offshores the crew might or might not entertain the thought of creating “Balmain Sailing Club: the Musical”.

Newcastle – Bass Island Race is the third race in the Blue Water Series organised by Cruising Yacht Club of Australia. It started at 7pm on Friday the 3d of October. There was some kind of commotion at the start line but Bear Necessity wasn’t part of it. One of the smaller boats in the 20 boat fleet, she moved out of the harbour with ease and grace. There was a long beat up the coast to Newcastle ahead of her.

The night was relatively light, and the water gleamed like metal where the moonlight touched it. The wind was gentle. The crew sat on the rail, armed with PFDs and PLBs, some of them undoubtedly dreaming of beating “Wild Rose”, the defending champion of the Blue Water series the year before.

After the excitement of the start, the crew settled into having snacks and talking to each other. The off watch went downstairs to sleep, listening to the soft sounds of water around and the occasional snore of fellow crew members. Navigators kept checking the course and the boat kept moving.

“Bear Necessity” turned around upon reaching Newcastle to go downwind all the way to Bass island; the turn was not ideal (too much tacking involved) but the day after was. Saturday was a perfect day for everyone on the boat. It was sunny, the boat surfed the waves reaching the top speed of 13.7 knots and gusts rarely disturbed the kite. The crew, bundled up at night, took of their thermals and enjoyed friendly banter as the off watch slept on the deck.

When the darkness descended, it felt different. The boat had to change the course, moving closer to the wind, and the shy kite started to overpower the boat. At some unfortunate moment the active sheet gave off from the pressure and flew off the winch. The next moment the sheet disconnected from the sail too – and it took efforts of the entire crew to get the sail down, undamaged, and get a jib up. Sober and quiet, the crew sat on the rail once again, sombrely chewing spaghetti bolognaise. Tony, a bowman, received first aid for rope burns on his palm.

Getting back into the harbour

Getting back into the harbour (photo by David Stenhouse)

After reaching Bass Island, “BN” turned once again to go back to Sydney. The crew on the dreaded 3 to 6 am watch was dreary-eyed and exhausted, yet Dave, the navigator, one of the helmsmen and the main motivator, kept the crew moving from the windward to the leeward side depending on the wind strength. Closer to 6 am the sun suddenly appeared. It wasn’t long to go. As the other watch got up, everyone stayed on deck – nobody wanted to be downstairs for the final rush into the harbour. Eastsail’s “Breakthrough” made it home just a little ahead of “BN”, and “Kraken” became a boat to match race, until finally, the entire crew cheered upon crossing the finish line, and a traditional bottle of rum magically appeared on deck.

“Bear Necessity” came first in division 2 on IRC and ORCi, 3d on PHS. “Wild Rose” finished the race 4 hours after.

Sydney to Southport 2014, or my first long ocean race

Sunrise in the ocean

On the way to Southport – photo by Louise Bavin

4 a.m. Can I describe the night sky in a way that doesn’t sound completely banal? Probably not. Yet, I will still tell you that I have never seen stars this bright and beautiful and so I try to take it all in, puzzling over unfamiliar constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. The coast is on our port side, and the only way to tell it’s there is the glow above the landline. The starboard light on our bow is reflected in the sail, painting its tack green.

I have time to observe all that because there is very little wind and we are moving at a barely tolerable pace of 3 knots. The current against us is not helping either. I am holding a spinnaker sheet in my hand, staring at the sail and trying not to fall asleep. My body doesn’t want to be awake and neither does my brain, so I force myself to come up with silly little poems, first in Russian then English. The verses keep slipping away from me as I am trying to think of a rhyme so I repeat them to myself again and again: “My kite is trembling, almost sighing, a slave to currents and the breeze. I won’t give up, I’ll keep on trying and praying for a wind increase.”

This is my first long ocean race. I avoided having any expectations before the race, yet it still managed to surprise me, again and again. It’s not the strong winds and huge waves that presented a challenge but long hours of slowly ploughing through the areas of very little wind. Contrary to my experience on land, I do not get cranky despite sleeping 3 to 4 hours at a time, but my body and brain seem to be far less responsive during the night, as if half-frozen in suspended animation. The seasickness that went away relatively fast is different from what you’d think, too: it’s not the excited flatter in your stomach as you go down the wave, it’s a constant feeling of being unwell, your head heavy, your whole body weak.

We had a relatively good start in very light conditions, keeping up with much bigger boats and changing sails from an asymmetric to a code zero to a screecher back to the asymmetric. Brindabella gave way to us as as a starboard boat. I was trimming the kite, peeling layers of clothes off one by one in what turned out to be a warm sunny day, and we were all watching a seal who was lazying in the water, seemingly undisturbed by the fleet. Wild Oats was moving south in search of a better breeze. Then we got a bit more wind, too.

That first day turned out to be critical for us. I was woken up after dark by the call from upstairs, stumbling to get off my bunk and put my PFD on and then helping to get our asymmetric down – ripped. Unusable for the rest of the race. It was about 17 knots, and we discussed afterwards what sail we should’ve used after we tore that kite – symmetric? Fractional asymmetric? Code zero? As it happened, a jib top went up, an easy sail – but a not very fast sail. It was dark and it seemed as if were alone in the universe; very different from harbour races where the pressure to overtake other boats is almost palpable as you see them going around the mark in front. The boat was new to the owner and the entire crew, and most of the crew, including me, were new to ocean sailing. And so the jib top stayed, and we were slowly losing ground compared to other boats, for hours, as my parents on the other side of the world were looking at the race tracker online, curious about our progress. “They are falling behind for some reason,” – Mum said. “You must be wrong,” – Dad replied. “Our daughter is always among the winners!”

Racing sailors are a competitive bunch. We all hate losing. And in the heat of the moment it’s hard to think about the benefits of races that go wrong. You need someone with a very cool head to calmly assess tactical decisions and performance of the entire crew and instead of turning it into a fight of wounded egos make sure that the lessons to learn are very clear. If we don’t discuss our mistakes openly, we still assess ourselves and each other but do we learn as much?..

Girls

Before the race, Lou and I

I found out that I need to take seasickness tablets and that I require much more practice before I can steer properly in the open ocean; that I get bored while staring at a kite in very little wind for hours on end and that I care about what people think even when I wish I didn’t. And I learned that my friends can be incredibly cool, making me smile as they wake me up for the dreaded graveyard shift with a cheerful call and a cup of coffee; getting a tight spinnaker wrap out in the dark; climbing masts and not giving up until the very last moment; driving the rest of us even when we started losing hope; a lot of things that make sailing with friends different from sailing with a bunch of strangers, especially strangers who are sailing superstars, each with their own opinion and little concern for others. Can we still be competitive? Can we learn and make enough progress in the rest of the series? I would like to think so.

We saw a lot of whales, dolphins and flying fish during the race. It felt like a cruise to some, and in reality we were not at all isolated from the rest of the world. Not just because of the GPS and the yellow tracker and the skeds; some people never even ran out of batteries on their phones – and they did use them. Yet, it was not hard to tune out of the everyday life if you so desired. Turning my phone off for 4 days was one of the benefits of the race to me, and I slept better than I ever do on land (who knew that sleeping on sails could be this comfortable?). I felt free to be present where I am instead of worrying about what I temporarily left behind. And when we finally got to our destination, that feeling stayed with me just as much as the sense of accomplishment about my first long ocean race, done and dusted, more important to me than the daily grind of seemingly important things I have to do every day.