The 2016 instalment of the historic Sydney Hobart upon us, TBS spoke to the skipper of Wild Oats, and eight-time winner Mark Richards.
The Sydney to Hobart is a true test of courage, endurance, teamwork and guile. Once the yacht turns south out of Sydney Heads the music does not stop ’til you reach Hobart. For a competition that can turn into hell on high water in an instant, those subject to the rolling shifting underworld can do nothing else but sail down the River Styx.
In its 71 year history, six people have died, numerous yachts have sunk and hundreds of yachts have failed to finish the Sydney to Hobart.
The 1998 Sydney to Hobart was the worst when a southern ocean hurricane hit the fleet in the Bass Strait generating 15 to 20-metre waves and 75-knot winds with some gusts over 90 knots. Only 44 of the 115 yachts who started the race made it to Hobart. Every yacht was sailing for survival and unfortunately there were six fatalities. In all, 55 yachtsmen had to be rescued, 50 by helicopter with brave pilots and crew, all plucked from the raging sea by harness, winch and a wire, and 24 yachts were abandoned or written off.
Three of those who died were from one yacht called the Winston Churchill, which was crunched by a massive wave, sending two crew members flying. They ended up wrapped around the backstay and left hanging metres above the deck.
Surviving crew member Bruce Gould later said: “The realisation that we were bloody sinking is not a very good feeling. I though, ‘We are a long way from shore here and … outside there is someone hanging on for grim life.”
The winner of that fateful 1998 Hobart race, Sayonara, was skippered by US billionaire Larry Ellison who says: “I think about it all the time. It was a life changing experience and it was my last Sydney to Hobart. Never again.”
However there have also been some incredible success stories associated with the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, so let’s go to the top of the totem pole and talk with eight-times line honours winner, dual handicap winner and current race record holder Mark Richards, who skippers the incredible 100-foot maxi Wild Oats XI, a metaphor for how technology has changed the face of racing to Hobart.
Today, onboard computers inform skippers of the latest weather threats and measure everything from wind speed and direction to ocean depth which goes from 2,000 feet at Montague Island to just 200 feet across Bass Strait, which is why that stretch is so dangerous as the seas pitch up to 10 metres and more and then break like at a surf beach only out at sea.
When it comes to the Sydney to Hobart classic, Richards is what Bart Cummings is to the Melbourne Cup, so there is no better helmsman to get his thoughts about what makes the race so special, to review his record eight victories and preview the 2016 Sydney to Hobart where he is out to make it nine wins.
Wild Oats holds the race record of one day, 18 hours and 23 minutes set in the 2012 Sydney to Hobart. Also that year, Richards and his now famous Wild Oats completed the treble for the second time, namely winning line honours, on corrected time, and breaking the race record. She is the only boat to have achieved this feat in the history of the race. Along the way you could say she has had more makeovers than Dolly Parton but Mark believes in keeping the boat ahead of the rest: “Every year or so we upgrade the boat, its hull and put new technology into it as well as new sails so when we are at the starting line we are steering a yacht at the cutting edge. It costs a lot of money to keep your yacht competitive but our record shows we are doing the right things. Right now she is in the best shape she has been in years.”
Even with the era of the super maxis upon us, the Sydney to Hobart is not a sprint but millions of mind games constantly in play. “It is relentless and exhausting and when we reach Hobart, I usually sleep for two days.”
Incredibly Wild Oats can travel at 42 knots which translates to a mind-boggling 78 kilometres per hour on water. On land, this sensation would be like driving a car at 200 kilometres an hour. For Mark, steering a 100 foot monster under sail and reaching speeds like this down the East Coast of Tasmania is one of the ultimate experiences you can have standing up, even after being awake for more than 24 hours. “Few people have experienced the power and the speed of a big boat travelling this fast, let alone steering it,” he says. “It is a privilege and an almighty adrenalin rush.”
The one thing money cannot buy is teamwork and camaraderie among the crew and it is here Mark believes Wild Oats has an extra advantage. “We have enjoyed a relatively stable crew over the years and everyone wants to win for each other. Mateship is critical when you are out at sea and racing.”
One man who will be missing this year for the first time is the legendary owner of Wild Oats, Bob Oatley, who passed away on January 10 of this year. He was a great mentor to Richards and an inspiration. “Bob and I were very close over our 20 years together and he was the ultimate yacht owner and friend,” Richards says. “He taught me so much about life, business and sailing, and we will remember him when we leave Sydney Heads and turn south on Boxing Day.”
So Mark Richards and Wild Oats will be attempting to win line honours for a record ninth time, having won its first back in 2005.
“It was an amazing race in 2005 because we had launched Wild Oats just two weeks prior to the start and we won the treble, line honours, corrected time and set a new race record. That was our greatest victory.”
Now winning the Sydney to Hobart classic takes more than a big fast boat. There is a little-known fact shared by every skipper and crew member who goes yacht racing and that is: the skipper and crew are making a new decision every 10 seconds on course, wind speed and direction, adjusting and changing sails, knowing where the opposition is, crew member shift rotations and how to get the best out of the yacht. When a race lasts between two and, in some cases, four days, that is a lot of mind power being expended not in a library but in pitching seas, rain squalls and where there is constant adjustment to fix the mind/body equilibrium of just being on a yacht in a rolling sea.
This Sydney to Hobart supremo started sailing at the age of six… When it comes to the Sydney to Hobart classic, Richards is what Bart Cummings is to the Melbourne Cup.
Richards knows this only too well, saying “Yacht racing is the ultimate brain drain and you need to be mentally on top of your game just as much at the finish as at the start. In the Hobart, getting out of Sydney Harbour is tough enough but then tactics and key decision making controls your whole being for the next 630 nautical miles. It is relentless and exhausting and when we reach Hobart, I usually sleep for two days.”
So even with the era of the super maxis upon us, the Sydney to Hobart is not a sprint but millions of mind games constantly in play among the crews of the 90 to 100 yachts, and this year Wild Oats will assume favouritism for line honours, but Mark sees his greatest threats to be Hong Kong-owned Scallywag, Anthony Bell’s Perpetual LOYAL and the prevailing weather.
“Conditions play such a vital role in who wins,” he says. “2006 was the worst year. We were tacking into the wind all the way and the crew got really bashed up. Crossing Bass Strait was hell because of the huge breaking waves constantly smashing over the rails up and down the yacht. Big boats are bad in huge seas and because of our size we were crunched all the way. It would have been better to have been in a 10 metre yacht bobbing up and over. Instead we were hit in all directions.”
Anything can happen when you race to Hobart and for Mark, one of the biggest dangers is when the crew change sails – especially at night. On a 100 foot maxi, this involves reeling in large masses of sail, folding it away and hoisting a new sail such as a spinnaker when on a shy or square run.
“You have to be so careful watching out for rogue waves and this is when crew members are most vulnerable. They can easily go over the side if they slip on sailcloth, and while they may be attached to the boat by cable, it is a dangerous manoeuvre pulling in a crew member out of a churning sea and up over the rails. The boat might gybe and then all hell breaks loose.”
However, this Sydney to Hobart supremo who started sailing at the age of six would not have it any other way.
“It’s the danger that is the attraction of the Sydney to Hobart. Every year is different, it’s unpredictable, but one thing you know for sure, you are going to deserve and enjoy that first beer when you arrive at Constitution Dock to an amazing reception from the locals.”