Howth Yacht Club team prepares for the Rolex Sydney Hobart
22 December 2019
Each Christmas the Rolex Sydney Hobart race attracts lots of interest from curious northern hemisphere sailors and sailing enthusiasts who enjoy a welcome distraction from the dull days that prevail between the 26th of December and the New Year festivities. This year at midnight on December 25th ‘Irish time’, Howth interest will be slightly more elevated from the regular support that Gordon Maguire has enjoyed for many years. This year he’ll again be racing with Matt Allen on ‘Ichi Ban’ for the start of his 20th Sydney-Hobart race.
Gordon was a principal part of the Irish team that won the Southern Cross Cup after the 1991 Sydney Hobartydney-Hobart, as was Kieran Jameson who is back in Australia this year as part of an all-Howth team that have been planning their race for the past two years. Working with Darren Wright, Kieran has spent much of the past year planning and negotiating an initially difficult deal that eventually secured the charter of the Beneteau First 40 ‘Breakthrough’, which has already raced the Sydney-Hobart in 2016 and included Irish crew Barry Hurley and Kenny Rumball. Kenny was one of the many experienced references that the HYC team leaned on to put the project together, others included North Sails Ireland’s Shane Hughes and Australian-based Howthie and aforementioned Gordon Maguire.
The choice of boat seemed a natural one, given that the Howth team have plenty of experience racing offshore classics and competed in the Rolex Middle Sea race and the Caribbean 600 on Lucy Reynolds’s First 40 ‘Southern Child’ in 2014 and 2016. Darren Wright explained “Having seen how the First 40 Southern Child handled the storm that hit us on the Middle Sea Race, we were very comfortable with this choice of boat for Sydney”. Former sailmaker Kieran Jameson was anxious that the sail wardrobe would be in prime condition for what is one of the toughest and most grueling of the World’s offshore calendar of races. “We spent a lot of time negotiating finer details in respect of sails and our charter experience has taught us to be very careful to do this properly”. Kieran knows that equipping the boat with the right sails and the best quality can be the difference between an enjoyable event and confronting a financial nightmare in terms of costs associated with destroying sails due to poor or worn sailcloth.
Their yacht for the 75th anniversary of this classic event has been renamed ‘HYC Breakthrough’, ensuring that the Howth brand is prominently evident and the team also carry the ‘HYC 125th Year’ logo on all their clothing, heralding the club’s upcoming anniversary. One of 6 First 40s entered and grouped in IRC Class 6 for the race, HYC Breakthrough is certainly in the ‘smaller boat’ category and whilst it’s unlikely to grab the limelight away from the super-maxis on the spectacular first part of the race out of Sydney Harbour, the HYC guys haven’t been shy about making their presence felt with TV interviews for Channel 10 News and a special recorded interview to be broadcast online before the race by sailing news personality Nic Douglass (Facebook: Adventures of a Sailor Girl) will highlight that the team is entered as a unique all-club-crew from Ireland.
This event will add to the string of ‘Blue Riband’ offshore racing events completed by this crew which includes Howth sailors like Colm Bermingham who shares much of the helming and will also advise on tactics and weather routing. He’ll share the chart table seat with 747 pilot Rick DeNeve, who’s experience and attention to the important detail of navigation might only be interrupted by his flying skills as they will be applied to managing the drone camera footage. The team will benefit hugely by the presence of experienced offshore-racer Simon Knowles, following a successful year racing his J109 ‘Indian’. His versatility and all-round skills will be a great asset to the boat. No doubt that the necessary guile and strength will again be delivered by Emmet Sheridan and Jonny White, both are fearless competitors and versatile sailors, offering trimming talent in the cockpit, helming and valuable back-up in any position on board. Emmet might normally be preparing for the New Year’s Day Laser race at this time of year, so the 30-40 degree temperatures in Sydney this week will certainly be a different proposition.
At the front end, Luke Malcolm might forgive us for referring to him as the ‘youth’ on board, but he has a pivotal role to play all around the yacht. Probably one of the most understated racing sailors in Ireland, Luke has logged an enormous amount of sea miles over his lifetime and collecting trophies along the way in Fireballs, Flying 15s, Team Racing, J24s, large keelboats and Howth 17s. Well informed racing sailors will tell you that (amongst his other talents) Luke is probably the best racing bowman in Ireland, with an instinct that transforms potentially embarrassing crew mistakes into the smoothest of maneuvers. If you’re looking to go racing offshore in the toughest conditions, take Luke with you.
Kieran and Darren are the centre-of-gravity for the team and both will spend much of the race at the wheel, although Darren’s other lesser-known skill is in the galley where he revels in the challenge that he sets himself when beside the fridge and over the stove. This particular HYC offshore team have never shown an appetite for anything less than the best grub and Darren makes sure that it’s delivered, even in the worst of conditions. Freeze-dried food won’t be on the menu for this boat’s crew. Their preferred watch-system will have the team split into 2 watch groups, with a ’floating’ navigator and a watch alternating between three 4-hour shifts during the day (6am-6pm) and four 3-hour shifts at night.
Taking weeks off to go racing in Australia at Christmas-time means that unless you are prepared to sacrifice family for this festive season, they need to come with you. Luke’s parents Ian and Judith travelled down under meeting up with daughter Katie as part of an extended Howth team that also includes the Sheridan family, Therese Bermingham, the DeNeve family and also Melanie, Rocco and Sienna Wright. All have had a chance to go for a sail on HYC Breakthrough during the weeks leading up to the event and posing for photos in front of the Opera House! Rocco and Sienna have separately been blazing their own trail on the Australian Optimist circuit as part of the ‘Howth’ trip, respectively winning the Sail Sydney Open Optimist Championships and the Sydney Summer Optimist Regatta in the Open and Intermediate divisions, and by quite a margin in each event.
However these events are really prequels to their real focus, the Australian Nationals which begin on January 2nd in Melbourne, a conveniently short-hop from Tasmania for the Wright family. Rocco is no stranger to those paying regular recent attention to junior sailing and having finished 10th at the World Championships in Antigua this summer (Ireland’s best ever result), he’s continued the upward trajectory and must now be one of the World’s top Optimist sailors.
Route and weather planning is always a critical part of offshore racing and this race usually settles into some predictable conditions and wind direction. Mike Sanderson who is tactician on the 100 foot supermaxi ‘Comanche’ explains: “This race might look like a point A to point B rhumline, but it’s much more about optimising the fastest route by utilising the weather patterns”. However, it’s possible that this year might be a harder route to call, not least because of the thermal and cloud influence of the brush fires still raging to the north and west of Sydney. At the time of writing, the forecast for the Sydney-Hobart is still unclear and best described by Matt Allen, skipper of Ichi Ban “We are very, very fastidious on the weather forecasting … we’re looking at really exact wind angles for what sails we will fly and it’s just not that accurate at the moment. All the racing we’ve done, September, October, and November, the weather just hasn’t correlated with the forecasting at all. With all the smoke haze and whatever, that’s impacting the weather models quite a lot.” It’s possible that the fleet will need to cross a transition period between the weather systems separating the initial northeasterly and the new southerly wind. It’s also being suggested that this might favour some of the smaller boats including HYC Breakthrough, but it’s certainly too early to predict.
The traditional Sydney to Hobart lead-up, the Big Boat Challenge on December 10, was abandoned due to low visibility caused by the bushfire smoke, with concerns now circulating that poor conditions on St Stephen’s Day could see the famous race delayed.
The smokey haze is evident in many of the photos and video that the HYC team have been sending home, but the prevailing northeasterly wind might hopefully prevent any disruption of the start of what is the sport’s spectacular annual showcase event and portraying Sydney Harbour at its finest.
The yachts will race out of Sydney Harbour, rounding turning marks to starboard and then sail past Sydney Heads and south towards Tasmania. One of the more unusual safety regulations within the Sailing Instructions is that 'all boats are required to contact the Radio Relay Vessel before entering the perilous waters of the Bass Strait, reporting position, wind strength and wave height' and each skipper has to declare the following:
- the High Frequency (HF) radio is working
- the required number of life rafts are still on board
- engine and batteries are still working
- boat and crew are in good enough condition to continue
- the skipper has assessed the conditions and forecast and crew and boat are prepared for the conditions
The combination of shallower waters and prevailing wind-over-tide in the Bass Strait make for tricky sailing in average conditions, but in a strong wind or gale force north westerly it’s a fearsome place to encounter. After his victory on Ichi Ban in the 2017 Sydney-Hobart, Gordon Maguire spoke of that stretch of water and recalled “In a two or three metre sea state you can have more than a half tonne of water coming at you at 20 knots every five or six seconds. Every wave that hits you is a couple of hundred kilos of weight. As you plough into one, the wave comes from the deck and hits you in the face. You are basically driving blind and at all the critical moments, you’re been taken out. My ribs are bruised, my arms are hurting. It’s the hardest driving I’ve ever done”.
Once across the Bass Strait, the sea state quickly abates and it’s possible that the wind strength will reduce once boats are clear of the funneling influence that occurs in a westerly between southern Australia and the north coast of Tasmania. The spectacular northeastern coastline of Tasmania makes a great backdrop for those aerial photos that will decorate the sports pages on Sunday and Monday morning, with all crew on the rail and hiking for the duration before the turn around Tasmin Island and northwest towards the finish line in Hobart.
One of Howth’s other professional sailors, Shane Diviney, will be racing on Rupert Henry’s Judel Vrolijk 62 ‘Chinese Whisper’ (formerly ‘Jethou’). This will be Shane’s second Sydney-Hobart, having raced on the same boat in the 2015 race when they won IRC 0 and were 5th overall. He’s been busy helping the team prepare and making some modifications to the boat for the race including a brand new carbonfibre bowsprit. Shane has had a busy year, mainly working with Team Malizia on their IMOCA 60 and their preparations for the campaign to compete in the 2020 Vendée Globe which starts next November.
HYC members are invited to join the special ‘Follow HYC Sydney-Hobart’ WhatsApp group where live updates from HYC Breakthrough team will continue to be posted on the lead-up to and during the event. The group was set up to keep family and friends up-to-date with all the news from Australia and already has hundreds of subscribers.
You can also join the race and compete online with ‘Virtual Regatta’, where lots of other HYC members already signed-up and planning to immerse themselves for 2-3 days in some ‘virtual escapism’ and the hope that they can get a flavour of the race. It’s an interesting way to appreciate the tactical management and weather routing that this famous race demands, while keeping an eye to the progress of the ‘real’ boats and your progress against them!