The Sydney-Hobart Storm - Such is the power of the Internet that my first column, a year ago, was an early analysis of the brutal storm that hit 115 boats racing off Australia on December 27, 1998, killing six sailors. That 1999 race was a landmark event in the long history of offshore sailing.
The last word is not yet in on that catastrophe and it may well prove to contain many fireworks. The final word will come in the coroner's report after his official inquest. A coroner in the British legal system has many of the broad powers of an American grand jury and can aggressively pursue many threads. Expected to appear by mid-2000, the report may well be more critical of race management and boat handling than the somewhat tame self-investigation by the organizer (the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia) and books written about the race.
The CYCA changed some rules for the 1999 race. Here are some of the new ones. They're worth serious consideration by anybody heading offshore:
At least half the crew must have extensive offshore experience
Experienced cruising sailors, libertarians by nature, may well complain that such rules - any rules - limit sailors' freedom to prepare their boats and themselves as they think fit. It is my long experience that before a race, safety preparations often are assigned a lower priority than racing preparations. If left entirely to their own devices, many racing sailors will prepare to go to sea by buying another jib instead of the best safety harnesses or EPIRB and will spend their spare time practicing spinnaker sets, not crewoverboard rescues. The competitive impulse is that strong.
So I'm not bothered by cautious racing safety regulations. Still, two of the new Hobart Race rules initially struck me as overly restrictive - the ones concerning age limits and satcom. On reflection, however, I could see how each does address important problems specific to this event. Apparently it has been fairly common to take adolescents on the race, and in 1998 some teenagers were in far over their heads. (By the way, there seems to be no maximum age limit; one skipper in the 1999 race was 84.)
Satcom allows boats to be tracked on a web site and permits crews to send and receive e-mail. While old shellbacks whose faith lies in self-sufficiency may not like it, this information does ease the fears of families ashore, including those still having nightmares about the 1998 Sydney-Hobart storm. Satcom affects a race in two other, less important ways. First, the constant flow of positions drives competitors to push themselves and their boats harder than they might if they did not know how the boats over the horizon were doing. And second, satcom feeds the great publicity machine that makes commercial sponsorship possible (which is a mixed blessing that must be kept under control and in perspective).
This Year's Brutal Sydney-Hobart - The fact that there were some 7,000,000 hits on the Sydney-Hobart web site (that's right - seven million) during the long, tough 1999 race suggests how valuable this information can be. This year's fleet, while suffering no casualties, still did not have it easy in one of the most difficult if not bizarre races I know about. Most of the 80 entries were blasted by two force 8-10 (34 to 55-knot) gales from opposite directions, one following on the heels of the other. In the end there were two races. In the first, speed records were broken. In the other, boats were pounded without mercy. In all, 31 boats (40% of the fleet) were forced to withdraw.
The initial gale, with its north wind pushing the boats on a rapid run from soon after the start, produced astonishing boat speeds. The first boat to finish, the Volvo 60 Nokia, averaged almost 15 knots to break the course record by 18 hours. Another 16 boats, including a 40-footer, also broke the record.
Then the wind died for a while, went into the south, and blew up into a second gale while the smaller boats were crossing Bass Strait, between southern Australia and the island of Tasmania, where the race finished. This second gale blew 40-55 knots right on the nose for five days. It banged into a strong current and kicked up steep seas that gave these unfortunate boats and crews a brutal battering. There were many injuries, and 12 sailors with broken bones or suffering from shock were taken off entries, At one point a dozen boats were anchored in sheltered bays on the Tasmanian coast and nearby islands waiting for conditions to moderate. Eight boats welcomed in the millennium at sea, still pounding into the gale, and the last two boats didn't finish until January 2, a week after the start.
American Developments - he Australian activities and rule changes have been watched closely by the Cruising Club of America, the sponsor of the Newport-Bermuda Race that will be sailed in June. The CCA has long had a (justified) reputation for its concern about safety and for not being timid about telling participants in its Bermuda Race what to do. This year the race's rules, already quite strict, have been tightened here and there. There will be regular reporting of positions that will be available to the public. On www.bermudarace.com you'll find the rigorous pre-race inspection check list plus some wise recommendations for use of safety gear. Again, any cruising sailor will benefit from a close study of these regulations and any rules for offshore races.
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