Sunday, January 15, 2012

In at the Deep End

Graveyard watch, somewhere off the coast of New South Wales. It’s cold, dark, wet and windy as hell. Half a dozen of us are huddled on the rail of Southern Excellence, sailing into the teeth of a southerly buster that’s been blowing hard all night and much of the preceding day. Half the crew are sleeping below, still in their wet weather gear, splayed out on bunks and sail bags like casualties of war. The rest of us are dropping in and out of sleep, dog tired, drenched and shivering, when someone (I don’t know who – everyone looks the same in three layers of waterproofs) mutters into the night the question that’s been bothering me for hours:

“Can someone, anyone, please tell me why we do this fucking sport?”

No one replies. It will be about three days and 600 nautical miles before I learn the answer.


When I first had the idea to sail in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, I had imagined myself landing a cosy media spot on a sedate cruiser-racer, from where I’d be able to sit back and observe the crew going about their work, perhaps with a mug of hot chocolate in hand. Maybe, if I had the urge and it didn’t look too dangerous, I could help tie a fender or two once we reached Hobart.

I wrote to the race organisers asking if they had any media spots in the fleet. Sure, they said. Just tell us how much you weigh (93 kilos, pre Christmas lunch) and how much sailing experience you have (a few childhood summers knocking around in the family day boat). No problem, they said: Southern Excellence will take you on board.

Some yachts race to Hobart for fun, taking their time, putting comfort before competition. Southern Excellence is not one of those yachts. She’s a Volvo 60, a thoroughbred ocean racer originally built to sail around the world in the toughest yachting event on the planet, the Volvo Ocean Race. Her owner and skipper, Sydney businessman Andrew Wenham, has modified her slightly to make her suitable for charter, but in essence she’s still the stripped down, carbon fibre speed merchant of her VOR days, and a long way from the upholstered family weekender I’d imagined.

Not only that, but because Southern Excellence is rated to the Performance Handicap System, anything onboard that didn’t contribute directly to sailing performance (i.e., me) would be considered unwanted ballast. In other words there would be no free rides for journalists. If I wanted to get to Hobart, I’d have to pull my weight.

In the weeks leading up to Boxing Day, I did my best to become a seasoned ocean racer. I enrolled in a RYA/ISAF offshore survival course, was shown slide shows of gruesome sailing injuries (I had no idea there were so many ways to kill and maim yourself on a boat), and spent a chilly afternoon being dunked in and out of Sydney Harbour, fully dressed and in my wet weather gear, doing liferaft drills. I joined the crew of Southern Excellence for twilight racing, an exercise in ritual humiliation as I fumbled with winches, became tangled in sheets and once – I still have nightmares about this – almost dropped the entire rig in the harbour by releasing a runner at the wrong moment. An overnight race up to Cabbage Tree Island and back gave me a foretaste of watchkeeping, but even I knew that was a walk in the park compared to what Bass Strait had in store.

On Christmas Eve, things started to get serious. I received an email notifying myself and the rest of the crew that boat call on Boxing Day was 9am sharp, that winds of over 40 knots had been forecast and showing up with a hangover would absolutely not be tolerated. We were to bring only our crew uniforms, personal items and wet weather gear. Extra clothes for Hobart – 628 nautical miles and perhaps four days distant, depending on prevailing winds – were to be packed separately and sent ahead by truck to save weight. I wondered, as I sipped on my festive soda water, if we all might be better off if I joined them.

When viewed on TV or from the harbour foreshore, the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart resembles a rather well organised carnival parade. Seen from the deck of a boat in the midst of the fleet, it’s bedlam.

Everything is rushing around everything else. 100-foot maxis tack across our bows with inches to spare, their crews grinning from the rail and giving us the thumbs up. David Burt, Southern Excellence’s Sailing Master, expertly threads the boat through the converging, jostling mass while fellow helmsman Chris Sligar, who will take the wheel for much of the race, leans off the rail counting down areas of approaching high pressure with uncanny precision. Overhead, media choppers hammer the sky to a war zone crescendo. I have no idea where the start line is.

Just as I think things can’t possibly get any more intense, the start gun fires. We’re on our way to Hobart. The crew relax slightly as the fleet spreads out between the Heads, and for the first time I look south to the horizon. I’m no weather expert, but it looks a little stormy out there to me.

The front arrives on cue just before sundown, announcing itself with a rolling curtain of gun-metal cloud that looms over the horizon like a vice, its ragged black maw shot with lightning bolts and rain squalls. It’s an awesome sight, but Southern Excellence is well prepared for it. Since the start of the race Damon, our navigator, has been tracking the storm’s progress, counting down its arrival first in nautical miles and then in minutes. Two generous reefs have been added to the mainsail, and the heavy duty No. 5 headsail hauled up from below ready to hoist. Sheets are run, deck and pit tidied, gear secured, PFDs and harnesses donned.

As the storm nears, the atmosphere on deck grows charged. The bow team swap nervous wisecracks as they scamper up and down the boat making last minute tweaks. The pit crew, myself included, brace on the grinders and winches, waiting for the call to hoist, while the helmsman and trimmers scan the sea for squalls and watch the other yachts in the fleet – one of two are still visible on the horizon – for tell-tale sail changes that could offer further clues to the pattern of the approaching front.

The air crackles with electricity, the sea darkens and I feel goosebumps on my skin as the temperature drops several degrees.

“Let’s get that sail up,” says David.

The bow guys go to work, their yells and curses carried back on the building wind. Ease starboard tack, hold, hold, hoist! Winches rattle, sails crack and I pump the grinder handles until my arms feel ready to burst. A new headsail appears inside the existing one, which is then peeled away and yanked back on board between the deck and the foot of the new sail. The process takes seconds, and barely a knot of boat speed is lost. (In the course of the race the bow team will make over 45 headsail changes, sometimes painstakingly wooling and packing a used spinnaker only to see it relaunched and then immediately dropped again when the wind changes. Occasionally tempers flare – “How about we do one fucking drop at a time?!” – but these brief outbursts are accepted by the rest of the crew. After all, it’s not us up there juggling halyards in a gale.)

Even to my inexpert eye, the timing of the manoeuvre is exquisite. Less than half a minute after the sail change is complete, the southerly delivers its first knockout punch. The bow guys barely have time to jump back into the pit, drenched and out of breath, when David yells “Weight up!”, and Southern Excellence is buffeted into a 40 degree heel. The deck becomes an obstacle course. I scramble up the slope, grateful to a crewmate who reaches down and hauls me onto the rail. The wind speed indicator on the mast has jumped from 14 knots to 29, then 32… 35… 37… I watch it hit 39, then remember to clip my harness onto the jackline.

I’m last up onto the rail, so first into the weather. Spot the novice. If I couldn’t helm or trim, then at least I made a decent wind break. Already I’m wishing I hadn’t skimped on my sailing boots, which have swiftly filled with seawater. Every wave that lashes across the bow finds a new way into my borrowed wet weather gear.

Hours pass. My visible world is reduced to the narrow slit between my upturned collar and my spray hood. A metre beneath my feet the South Pacific seethes past, dark valleys and peaks specked with phosphorescence and streaked with wind-blown spume. To my right, the bowsprit tosses and crashes endlessly on a confused four metre swell, the spray hitting my face like hail when I’m stupid enough to turn into it. To my left are the hooded figures of my fellow crewmembers, hunched over the rail like praying monks, motionless, possibly asleep (I will doze on the rail several times myself, often waking to think I’m still dreaming). Beyond them, the reassuring figure of Chris at the helm, concentrating hard, his wind-creased face lit by the orange glow of the binnacle.

A night spent on the rail in a storm is an almost Zen-like exercise in extended discomfort. I find it impossible to get comfortable, but every shift in position causes cold seawater to sluice from one part of my trousers to another. I’m hungry, too, having been too nervous to eat before the race. I know there’s a crushed muesli bar stashed in the pocket of my shorts, but to reach it I’ll have to unclip my harness and PFD, burrow through several layers of wet weather gear and find a way into my sailing overalls, which appear to have been designed by Harry Houdini. As for having a pee, forget it.

I’m still bursting to go when dawn arrives and with it, mercifully, a change of watch. Damon appears with news that we’ve gained several miles over our competitors during the night. We’re now placed 17th overall and snapping at the heels of the maxi yacht Brindabella, which is competing in a division above ours. In all those hours on the rail, I’d forgotten that we were racing.

Below decks is a slanted world of organised chaos. The floor and bunks are covered with sails and sail bags. Dripping waterproofs, harnesses and PFDs swing crazily from grab lines strung across the ceiling. Everything is lit by a single dim red bulb that makes me feel like I'm in a disaster movie, and the air smells of wet sock. I stagger forward to the galley, cram a couple of biscuits into my mouth and look around for somewhere to sleep.

All the bunks on the windward side are taken (again, spot the novice) so I flop down on a damp sail bag. Someone’s sea boots are in my face and under my waterproofs my skin itches with salt, but I’m too tired and cold to undress. I’m also dimly aware that if there’s an emergency (sudden dismasting, keel loss, whale collision, I’ve heard all the stories) I don’t want to be in my jocks when it happens.

Sails are being trimmed above and the noise is deafening, each turn on the winch sending juddering bangs reverberating through Southern Excellence’s hull. On top of that the bilge alarm has malfunctioned, filling the cabin with an incessant high pitched beeping. It’s like trying to sleep in the front row of a krautrock concert. I close my eyes, and moments later someone is shaking me awake.

“Watch change mate, you’re up.”

Time passes in a delirium of three-hour watches, punctuated with frequent sail changes and the occasional tack or gybe. Most of the time, I have no idea where we are. The wind is still strong, albeit shifting to the north east, and the crashing swell is merciless. I can barely stand (one of the bow team enquires, “Are you OK mate? You look drunk”) but there is work to be done: headsails to flake, spinnakers to wool, pack, haul on deck and hoist. I’ve lost track of time, but when someone puts a pot of hot instant noodles in my hand it feels like lunch. There will be much better meals served during the race, including homemade pasta and beef stew, but nothing will quite hit the spot like that undercooked pot of MSG.

My body has become used to the discomfort. The secret, I realise, is acceptance. After a while, my clothes have been drenched and dried on my skin so many times they feel fused to me organically. I have bruises on my bruises, but no longer feel them. My stomach has shrunk to the point where I can survive happily for hours on a fun-sized Crunchie bar. At some point I even manage to stumble to the transom and finally, blissfully, pee.

After two days we have left Bass Strait behind us and Southern Excellence is bumping along in a stiff south westerly. The sun comes out, the swell lessens and the deck becomes a laundry as we peel out of our damp gear. Shirts come off, sunblock is passed around and socks and boots steam on the cabin roof. We are still racing, though, and domestic chores take second place to boat speed. The crew focus on wringing every available knot from the lightening breeze, with the helmsman nursing the boat over every wave and the trimmers adjusting the sails for every patch of ruffled water, every current and eddy. Throughout the afternoon their calls to the pit form a soporific mantra: Trim... hold... trim... hold... trim... big trim... hold…

We rake in the miles in long, choppy tacks, and by dawn on the 29th the rugged silhouette of Tasmania’s eastern coastline can be seen sliding past to starboard. Soon we can make out the hazy finger of the Tasman Light, 45 miles distant. Talk tentatively turns to hotel arrangements and the night’s festivities in Hobart. It’s the first non-sailing related conversation I’ve heard in three days, and sounds as alien as the chirps from our mobile phones as they pick up the first patchy areas of shore coverage.

A few celebratory beers are handed around as we round Tasman Island, but as we cross Storm Bay and enter the River Derwent all eyes are on the wind speed indicator. The breeze is dropping – if it dies we could end up flopping around out here for another day or more, close enough to the finish line to practically smell the fish and chips at Sullivan’s Cove.

In the end, though, all the hard work of the past three days pays off. We fly down the Derwent just after sundown on the last breeze of the day, running at just a knot or two below wind speed and escorted by a trio of dolphins, who fizz through the water a metre or two off the bow. The outskirts of Hobart appear, followed by the Tasman Bridge and the twinkling lights of the waterfront. A final gybe. and we hear the glorious paaarp! of the air horn as we cross the finish line. We have been at sea for three days, eight hours, 15 minutes and 18 seconds, placing 15th overall and winning our division. There will be some serious rum drinking at the Customs House Hotel tonight.

Andrew takes the helm for the traditional lap of honour around the paddock, and after days alone at sea suddenly we are in the midst of a party. The race finish happily coincides with the Hobart Wine Festival, and hundreds of slightly intoxicated revelers line the quay, whooping and cheering as we, rather self consciously but enjoying every minute, furl the sails and ready the boat for berthing.

This has been only my first Sydney Hobart - there are race veterans in their 80s competing who have done the sail south 45 times - and compared to the rest of the crew I’ve contributed little. But right now, swaying down Hobart dock with a bag of damp clothes, wobbly sea legs and the cheers of that crowd still ringing in my ears, I feel like a yachtsman. Dammit, I feel like a conqueror of nations.

Someone slaps me on the back and says "Well done mate, first ocean race! Crazy sport, right?" and I think back to the question that was asked on the rail that night.

Now, suddenly, I know the answer.

With thanks to Andrew Wenham and the crew of Southern Excellence. For info on private charter and race dates visit: