Storm warning casts shadow on Sydney to Hobart

Jimmy Spithill.
Jimmy Spithill.

JIMMY Spithill has vivid memories of the tragic 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

The then 19-year-old was on board Syd Fisher's supermaxi Ragamuffin when the boat, and most of the fleet, was hit by the fiercest storms and most violent winds the race has yet encountered.

Of the 115 yachts that set sail from Sydney Harbour - many of them under-prepared for and unaware of the conditions that lay ahead - just 44 made it to Hobart.

Five boats sank, 66 retired from the race, six sailors died and 55 others were rescued from their yachts, most by helicopter.

A coroner's inquest later laid the blame for the carnage at the feet of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, saying it had "abdicated its responsibility to manage the race".

The Bureau of Meteorology was also criticised for not doing more to alert the club of an upgraded forecast for a severe storm south of Eden (close to the New South Wales-Victoria border), nearly a day before the fleet was due there.

Spithill has since become one of the world's most successful sailors, winning the America's Cup twice as a skipper, and he will again be on board American supermaxi Comanche this year, as he was 12 months ago when the boat finished 49 minutes behind Wild Oats XI in second place.

The weather forecast is again for severe conditions, although not as extreme as 1998, or 2004 when just 59 of the 116 starters survived 50 hours of gale force winds and rough seas to make it to Hobart.

The Aussie said he hoped to never go through anything like the 1998 race again.

"We really got caught in some bad weather. There were some tragic consequences," Spithill said.

"We were fortunate enough to get through and get third place.

"It was really frightening, a lot of adrenaline.

"I remember at the beginning of the storm getting really sick."

 

Reigning Sydney to Hobart yacht race champion Roger Hickman (R) holds the overall winners trophy, the Tattersall's Cup, aboard his 30 year-old Farr 43 Wild Rose, with Mark Richards (L) skipper of Wild Oats XI which took line honours in last year's race.
Reigning Sydney to Hobart yacht race champion Roger Hickman (R) holds the overall winners trophy, the Tattersall's Cup, aboard his 30 year-old Farr 43 Wild Rose, with Mark Richards (L) skipper of Wild Oats XI which took line honours in last year's race.

 

While the supermaxis like Comanche, owned by American billionaire Jim Clark and his wife, former top Australian model Kristy Hinze-Clark, and defending champion Wild Oats XI will cope with the conditions quite well, Wild Rose's navigator, Jenifer Wells, had a warning for those on the smaller boats.

"If your boat and your crew are not prepared to go and face 40 to 50-knot winds in Bass Strait or elsewhere, you should not be going," Wells, who piloted Wild Rose to overall victory last year, said. "For us smaller boats, we expect it at least once, but could be facing it twice."

While 40-50 knots would be bad enough, boats detected wind speeds up to 80 knots in 1998, as well as waves up to 20m high.

The strong winds forecast this year are likely to favour the supermaxis with Wild Oats XI, which has reached Constitution Dock first in eight of the last 10 years, last year's runner-up Comanche and fellow American boat Rambler expected to lead the battle for line honours.

Wild Oats XI navigator Juan Vila said the boat was preparing for the worst end of the forecast spectrum in pursuit of a ninth line-honours victory.

"We are preparing for that but we also look at different models and there are some models that suggest the wind is going to be lighter up front if the low does not develop east of Tasmania," Vila said.

Comanche's Stan Honey said his crew was looking forward to racing in anything except light conditions, which brought her undone in the battle against Wild Oats XI last year.

The crew has been reduced from 24 last year to either 19 or 20 this time in a bid to make the boat lighter and faster.

Comanche's record has been outstanding in the past 12 months, taking line honours in the 618 nautical mile race from Newport to The Lizard, off the south-western tip of England.

It also won the 185nm Stamford to Block Island Race in the US and the prestigious 608nm Fastnet Race of the south coast of England.



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