23 December, 2005 3:22:00 PM AEDT
Small boats, Big ambitions
With much of the media attention for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race inevitably focused on the big, expensive line honours contenders, it is easy to overlook the 30-foot battlers that will arrive in Hobart some days later.
One may assume that the sailors racing these little boats are merely in it for the experience, the have-a-go-heroes who just want to get there. For some that is certainly true, but for the owner of Toecutter, the smallest yacht in the 86-boat fleet, he has far greater ambitions.
"Our expectation is to win the race," says Robert Hick, owner and designer of the Hick 31. "If we don't win, we're not happy. We were 2nd two years ago, and one of my boats won the 1998 race, so we have a chance if the wind works out for us."
Is it realistic for a diminutive 31-foot boat to take on the might and power of the maxis? Perhaps not on line honours, but on IRC handicap Hick believes he has as good a chance at winning the Tattersalls Cup as any well-prepared boat in the fleet. "Like everyone, we live and die on the weather we get," says Hick, about to embark on his 13th race to Hobart. "The thing about these new big boats is they're so fast that we're no longer racing in the same weather patterns. That can work to our advantage or against us. It depends on who gets the better weather."
In some ways a nasty forecast with bad weather from the south would suit Toecutter. "Crashing through the waves can cause real problems for the big boats, but for us, we go over the waves rather than through them. We can press on more or less at full pace through the rough stuff. We just wobble our way up and over the waves."
Of other similar-sized boats, Hick will be keeping an eye on the Mumm 30 Tow Truck, owned by Anthony Paterson and whose crew includes Olympic skiff representative Gary Boyd. "They will be hard to beat if they get more than their fair share of downwind running conditions."
If Robert Hick is all about winning the race, Dave Kent is certainly one of those have-a-go heroes for whom the sheer experience of getting to Hobart is everything. There are no Olympic sailors on board his 32-footer Gillawa. Instead, Kent invites sailing rookies to join him in the adventure of a lifetime. "When I started sailing, I actually discovered a sport that I was quite good at," he explains. For team games at school, he was always the last to be picked. So when I discovered sailing, and found a sport that I not only enjoyed but was actually reasonably good at, I was hooked on it.
So Gillawa is all about giving people a go, it doesn't matter whether they're good, bad or indifferent. Just give them an opportunity."
Among this year's crew on Gillawa are Janine Frawley, who completed her first-ever sailing race with the boat in the recent Gosford to Lord Howe Island Race, and Andrew Meacham, who has never raced before. "I've done a few deliveries, but I've never actually done a race," says Meacham, who admits he is looking forward to the Rolex Sydney Hobart with mixed feelings.
"I suppose there are some nerves, and some excitement. I'm really looking forward to going through Sydney Heads, and I'm looking forward to sailing up the Derwent and seeing Hobart. It's just the bit in the middle."
It's exactly that sort of understated humour that Kent looks for when he assembles his crew for Gillawa. "Our basic concern is crew camaraderie, because we're on a small boat for a long time. It's the way the crew communicate with each other - no cross words, but offers of help and support.
Tow Truck CYCA Staff
Last year Gillawa was last into Hobart, and by some margin. In fact, most of the boats had arrived, had their parties, and had already gone home by the time Kent and his merry band crossed the finish line. They arrived some seven days, 18 hours and 23 minutes after the start gun had fired in Sydney, but then there were 57 yachts that never made it to Hobart at all, some of the biggest maxis included.
Kent kept crew morale high through the vicious Bass Strait, with some well-timed humour. "When we heard Skandia had fallen over after her keel broke off, I said: "Well, we've pushed them beyond the limit. Who's next?"
But how would Kent cope with finishing last again? "I don't think it matters. We are one of the smallest boats and on handicap probably the slowest. I can't see us beating anyone across the line this year either. Our aim is to knock off a day and a half from last year's time. We're aiming for a PB, a personal best." The skipper believes this is an achievable goal.
"Last year we stopped in Eden for 12 hours when the weather was really bad. Our intention is not to go near Eden this year unless something goes really wrong. We don't think the race will be quite as much on the nose as it was last year. It should be a faster race."
But if you are resigned to coming last in a race, why race at all? Why not just go on a 600-mile cruise instead? "The answer to that is simple," Kent answers. "If you want to be recognised not just as a sailor, but as part of this small, elite group that can say, 'Yes, I've done a Sydney Hobart,' then suddenly people will say, 'Wow, you are a sailor.' Now you might not be much of a sailor at all, you might just be using your muscle to wind a winch and might never have sailed before.
But it has a huge attraction, the Rolex Sydney Hobart. When someone has done one of these races, they feel like they have really achieved something. There are many other races around, but this race has a special name for itself."
Kent says the welcome in Hobart is like no other race he has done. "The guys recording the finish were still there to record our time. Normally you record your own time when you arrive that late, but there they were. It's incredible the emotions that are brought out.
Of an inexperienced Gillawa crew, even the skipper has only competed in three Rolex Sydney Hobarts, in 1976, 1980 and 2004. But you get the sense that this strange habit is growing on him. Not even the severe weather of last year's passage across Bass Strait has deterred him. "It brought home how we had to help each other. We had waves to the top of the spreaders, and there were times when we thought, how are we going to get through this one?"
For Dave Kent, it is coming through those moments that makes it worthwhile coming back for more. "I think Rolex sum it up beautifully with one of the race slogans. We've got a sticker inside the boat which says: 'The Rolex Sydney Hobart. It reminds you of who you are.' I couldn't think of a better way of saying it."