En Route to Hobart, Hoping the Third Time's the Charm

Getting to Hobart has been elusive until now for CW contributer Herb McCormick. From "Herb's Watch" December 19, 2007

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Greg Zyner's Cavalier 35, Morna, will be one of 80-odd boats on the starting line for the 63rd running of the Sydney-Hobart Race.Herb Mccormick

We left Sydney, Australia, late last Sunday, with a fine mist descending over the city and a southerly front due at any time. It wasn't exactly a lovely evening for a sail, but we were on a mission, and the snotty forecast was actually quite suitable for our needs. Next week, on Boxing Day (December 26), Greg Zyner's Cavalier 35 Morna will be answering the starting gun for the 63rd running of the classic 628-mile Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race, and I'll be one of six crewmembers aboard. The Sunday-night shakedown was the last chance we'd have to get together and put the boat through its paces before the race start. So a bit of a southerly blow, a not-unlikely preview of coming attractions, was not necessarily a bad thing at all.

I've hesitated to mention to my shipmates my admittedly spotty record en route to Hobart, but it's probably time I came clean. I've never sailed the Hobart Race proper, but twice before I've set sail from Sydney bound for Tasmania, and on both occasions the entire enterprise went pear-shaped before we got to the Bass Strait, some 200-miles down the track. On each trip I wound up in the same pub in the coastal fishing village of Eden; I think the same guy bought me a beer both times. I'm truly hoping we don't meet for a third round.

The next time we pass North Head, the promontory marking the northern entrance to Sydney Harbor, we'll have no intention of turning around.

I was on my way to Fremantle for the America's Cup in 1986 the first time, and I had a week to kill over Christmas before I was due in Western Australia. So I made my way down to the famous Cruising Yacht Club of Australia hoping to score a ride for the race. I was hopelessly late to land a berth on a competing boat, but I did manage to talk my way aboard an 80-foot ketch owned by a Carolinas tobacco heir on a world cruise. The plan was to watch the start and head south with the fleet, in effect sailing in company as an unofficial entrant. It seemed like a pretty good deal.

The boat had a very proficient professional crew aboard, but the rest of the ship's company was largely made up of scantily clad lassies the owner had met in watering holes across town. In principle, I had no problem with this whatsoever. We ambled around the starting line with massive quantities of booze and food being consumed, though I partook of neither (nor did the paid hands), which turned out to be one of the more prudent decisions of my life. For when the dark "Southerly Buster" hit around midnight, with 35-knot winds building up massive seas, the onboard aura grew dim indeed. The party, as they say, was over.

While the skipper and his mates tended to the ill and wretched, I spent most of the night at the wheel as we reached off towards New Zealand, more or less thoroughly enjoying myself until early that morning, when I went below to one of the more miserable scenes I've ever seen at sea. I'll spare one and all the gory details, but when we finally made port in Eden two days later, with a cracked rudder among other less costly indignities, the bulk of the passenger list departed quickly and silently, and I was right with them.

Ten years later, I was southbound again, this time on the first leg of an expedition to Antarctica aboard the 60-foot Spirit of Sydney. This time, the crew was solid and so was the boat, and it was a good thing, too, for the wind came up hard from the south and blew and blew and blew.

Despite our best efforts, we made little headway. To complicate matters, we were on a tight schedule over the holidays and needed to get to Hobart by a certain date to procure fuel, gear, and provisions. When it became clear the deadline was in jeopardy, we pulled into Eden so I could catch a flight on to Hobart to take care of the details while the remainder of the team sailed on.

It took them another five days to make Hobart, and they rolled into the city at lunchtime on Christmas Day. They were, to put it politely, a mess. As it turned out, the ongoing leg to Antarctica, by way of the Southern Ocean, was, in comparison, an easy trip. But my two truncated voyages in the Tasman Sea left me with an abiding respect for those wild waters.

Aboard Morna last weekend, things went just fine. As we sailed out through the famous Sydney Heads, Greg said, "I think there may be a thunderstorm," and not five seconds later, the first crack of thunder reverberated from above. Jim Nixon, the most seasoned member of our crew, about to undertake his 14th Hobart Race, released his grip on the wheel and laughed. "Anybody want to have a steer?" he wondered.

The front rolled through soon after, with breeze topping off at 30 knots and building seas, to boot. The Laurie Davidson-designed Morna handled it with aplomb. Built like the proverbial brick outhouse, she may be one of the fleet's smaller boats, but she certainly appeared rugged and ready for the task.

After a few hours, we sailed back into Sydney Harbour and called it a night. Next time we pass the Heads we'll be outbound, with no intention of turning around. I'm hoping, a couple of days or so later, to have Eden in the rear-view mirror, with the third attempt at a sail to Hobart being the charmed one.

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