It defies description," said Club Secretary Mervyn Davey as he took a swig from his second gin and bitters of the morning and watched the sailors bustling back and forth along the docks of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia. "There are just no words to describe this race."
He was wrong, of course. There are plenty of words to describe the horrendous odyssey that each year carries otherwise sensible seafaring men south from Sydney Harbor 640 miles across the Tasman Sea to Hobart on the island of Tasmania, but most of the words are unprintable—even in Australia. If whales don't stave in your bottom on the way to Hobart, then sharks are likely to chew off your rudder. If the calms don't drive you bongers, then the gales will blow you inside out, for the Sydney-Hobart serves as a geography lesson as well as an endurance contest. It carries its contestants south out of the gentle trade winds into the fabled Roaring Forties, where the gales blow cold from the Antarctic and the giant albatross wheels and soars from trough to trough.
In the 24 years since its inauguration, this race under the Southern Cross has come to be considered a major classic by sailors all over the world, and to the people of Sydney and Hobart it ranks as a spectator sport second to none. Thanks to the location of the sponsoring yacht club right in the heart of Sydney Harbor, the start of the race alone draws a crowd numbering upward of 100,000.
By 9 a.m. on Boxing Day (Dec. 26), enthusiasts already had begun to throng the famous Heads, which serve Sydney as the Golden Gate serves San Francisco. Sunlight flickered from car windshields on every promontory, and what seemed at first to those of us in the fleet to be a kind of speckled patina on the countryside turned out to be thousands and thousands of people in gay shirts and dresses.
January 13, 1969
Beneath them on the water milled a spectator fleet of boats to be counted by the hundreds. Little outboards zipped in and out among sleek yachts and flying hydrofoils. Ferryboats were awash with fans eager to place bets with anyone who would book them, and tugboats bristled with TV cameras and newsmen.
For days before the race began, the newspapers had carried story after story on the front pages, along with news of the Apollo moon shot. Even the Davis Cup was relegated to a second spot. And so, by the time the fleet of 65 racers (including 16 foreign boats) was assembled for the start, most of the boats present were well known to the fans. However, one boat, the sloop Matuku from New Zealand, was conspicuous by its absence. Sailing down from Auckland, Matuku suddenly found herself in the midst of a pod of whales. One of them laid its tail across her stern with such a whack that it ripped the boat wide open, leaving Matuku's crewmen to fend for themselves in an ill-equipped life raft for five days. We were assured that on the race itself whales would be as common as gales.
It was gales that overtook another of the entries en route to Sydney: the huge American ketch Ondine. Bound southward from Germany around Cape Horn to Sydney where several crewmen—myself among them—were scheduled to join her, Shipowner Huey Long's 73-foot racer (SI, Dec. 2) ran into a fierce blow and snapped off her mainmast in the Indian Ocean some 5,000 miles west of Sydney. The Australian press had several field days speculating on 1) whether Long's skipper, Sven Joffs, would get her to Sydney in time for the race, and 2) whether Long himself, whose former Ondine finished first in record time in the '62 race, could get a new mast shipped out and stepped soon enough to let her compete.
Any intelligent betting man would have given odds against either proposition, but, operating from command posts some 10,000 miles apart, Long and Joffs went to work. From his office in New York, Long got in touch with shipbuilders in Germany and ordered a new mast built to the specifications of the old one and shipped by air to Sydney (cost: approximately $40,000). Meanwhile, Joffs, with only enough fuel to drive his auxiliary diesel a fifth of the distance to Australia, set up a jury rig on what was left of the old mast and sailed his vessel onward to Albany, on the southwest coast, pausing there for 24 hours to rest and refuel before motoring on to Sydney, where he arrived five days before the race was to start.
Next day the new mast arrived. There followed a period of near pandemonium as crewmen and ship workers prepared to set it in place, under the direction of Australian crewman Bill Psaltis.
While all this was going on, Long himself was in San Francisco, furiously waiting out 24 frustrating hours of idleness resulting from a missed plane connection. Characteristically, Huey made it just on time, along with his 12-year-old son Russell, the youngest crewman ever to sail the Sydney-Hobart. At 8 a.m. on the morning of the race the two Longs joined the rest of our polyglot crew of Germans, Australians, Americans, English, Canadians, and Japanese aboard the as-yet-untuned ketch and set out for the starting line. "We'll tune while they're adjusting the compass," said Huey, referring to the careful balancing of tensions on the standing rig that is vital to any racing sailboat and generally occupies days.
While some of the crew worked on the shrouds, getting the new mast set just right, others of us began hauling a genoa jib—so huge it requires a special hoisting tackle—out of its bin below-decks. All around us the spectators were darting back and forth, drowning the hum of the wind with the din of their engines. As they passed Ondine, a crowd of barrackers aboard one big ferry, hurtling along as crazily as an out-of-control cable car, cheered and cheered again: "Good luck, mates!" The crew of an outboard so small it disappeared behind the wakes of bigger boats moved in occasionally to bellow: "Look out, your mast's falling off!"
One huge Donzi, piloted by a beer-drinking, bare-chested maniac with a German World War II steel helmet atop his head, circled Ondine ceaselessly and unsteadily, blowing raspberries on a multitone horn.
Bigger and faster than life size, the carnival roared along as if everyone was hurtling happily to oblivion. "O.K.," Huey finally said, "get the main on her." And the long, exhausting task of putting Ondine under sail began. Threading through the crowd, we heeled first under double headsails. Then, as the breeze slackened briefly, the big genoa rumbled up the headstay, the crew hauling it hand over hand. There were even more frantic cheers from the fans until at last, with a farewell toot, toot, on its horn, the last spectator boat abandoned us.
Next day the world had turned upside down. Gone were the cloud-flecked skies and the comfortable temperatures; replacing them were torrents of rain and tempests that punched first from starboard, then port, with heavyweight blows that caught Ondine's sails aback. As we tacked and tacked again, great ropes of water connecting sky and sea suddenly spiraled upward, whirling and twisting. Waterspouts capable of drowning even super tankers were forming all about. One spawned just to leeward, leaving a bubbling sore in the sea where the surface licked upward. Against a continuous background of lightning, the spouts formed, dissolved and formed again. "Bear off away from it," yelled Long at the helmsman as still another reared right ahead.
The ocean behaved as if it were demented. Wave heads butted one another with no apparent reason or direction; rain belted even the albatross flat. Thankfully, after no less than 18 spouts were counted, the last one finally spun away and the wind came through from the southwest. But not before the jib topsail had fluttered helplessly down its stay.
To determine what was wrong, 220-pound engineer Nick Hilton tried going up the headstay in a bosun's chair. On his first try he swung around so violently that he quickly came down again. On his second try, strapped securely into the chair, Hilton made it up the 92-foot mast and brought the jib topsail halyard down with him. At its end dangled a shackle that theoretically was unbreakable and as big as your hand. It had cracked clear through.
Somewhere, off in the distance, other vessels were having an even rougher time. The highly touted American sloop Rage, second overall in this year's Bermuda and transatlantic races, lost her mast while pounding through rough head seas, as did another boat. Altogether 13 boats failed to make the finish, the biggest dropout rate in Sydney-Hobart history.
The fierce weather discouraged some skippers and even crews, but it didn't bother the lurking whales. They were there, all right, just as predicted. Quickly, Long decided to take a novel precaution. "Keep the generator running all night," he ordered, on the theory that, because whales have poor eyesight and good hearing, the sound of a diesel engine might scare them off. The idea worked, or seemed to, since the whales didn't bother us. Neither, fortunately, did a stray mine that was supposed to be drifting around in the dark.
Actually, the worst thing was the cold. Ondine's hands fought a continuing undeclared war with each other for the favored position farthest under the midship cockpit shelter. The losers huddled on sailbags with hands locked under armpits to ward off biting temperatures, freezing spray and driving rain. A second on watch became a minute, a minute an hour, an hour a century in the inky iciness. By contrast, the warmth below was too good to be true. Instead of making life more endurable, it only made going on deck tougher.
As it always does, the wind moderated in time and the sun came out again, and by the time Ondine led the fleet into Storm Bay the wind had almost failed. We began then to worry seriously about several smaller boats which persistently nipped at Ondine's heels for first-across-the-line honors, a goal she has never failed to achieve in any race she's entered. The nature of this one was against winning on corrected time. We knew it would take a miracle to do it, and no miracle appeared. Later on we learned that the corrected-time honors went to Koomooloo, an eye-catching Australian sloop owned by young (32) D. J. O'Neil. But the welcome that lay ahead of us as first arrivals in Hobart almost made up for the loss. It was even more incredible than the send-off in Sydney. Nowhere in the world are there sailing fans such as those who inhabit isolated Tasmania. They have even built a stadium at shoreside for devotees to watch races in the Derwent River. "We've only got 400,000 people in the state," said a local skipper, "yet I've seen as many as 100,000 watching our marine carnival."
So it was not surprising that most of Hobart was there to watch when Ondine blew into town under spinnaker on a freshening breeze. Crossing the finish line a safe first, Ondine jibed and rounded into the wind. A sound swept across the water such as few sailing men have heard in their lives—a wild cacophony of honking horns and people cheering, thousands upon thousands of people, tens of thousands, it seemed, stacked along the riverbank shoulder to shoulder. "It's the most incredible finish I've ever experienced," Long said afterward.
"Pull into that dock over there," shouted a friendly official who came alongside in a launch, and Ondine, now under power, slowly made her way toward the harbor, with a fleet of small craft escorting her. As she pulled alongside, a fresh new kind of greeting awaited her, a greeting usually alien to yachtsmen. Lined between water and a cargo shed as far as the eye could see stood a crowd that did not yell, scream or stamp its feet, but instead solemnly clapped. They were not yachtsmen in Top-Siders, club ties or brassbound jackets but salesmen, housewives, a carpenter in his Sunday best and a waiter carrying his 3-month-old son to see "the winner."
The sight and sound took even Ondine's world-girdling, wisecracking crew aback. Later, as one of her hands clambered ashore through the throng, two boys, one the son of a brick mason and the other of a prison guard, stepped forward and grabbed his duffel bags. "You want a taxi, sir?" asked one. Told yes, he disappeared in search of a phone. When the taxi arrived, the crewman offered the equivalent of 25¢ to each boy. They politely rejected it. "You're on Ondine, you know," they explained.