SI Vault
Hugh D. Whall
January 13, 1969
Whales, gales and waterspouts were some of the hazards that threatened SI's yachting writer when he sailed through the Roaring Forties aboard the top boat in Australia's wildest race
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January 13, 1969

The Hard Way To Hobart

Whales, gales and waterspouts were some of the hazards that threatened SI's yachting writer when he sailed through the Roaring Forties aboard the top boat in Australia's wildest race

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While some of the crew worked on the shrouds, getting the new mast set just right, others of us began hauling a genoa jib—so huge it requires a special hoisting tackle—out of its bin below-decks. All around us the spectators were darting back and forth, drowning the hum of the wind with the din of their engines. As they passed Ondine, a crowd of barrackers aboard one big ferry, hurtling along as crazily as an out-of-control cable car, cheered and cheered again: "Good luck, mates!" The crew of an outboard so small it disappeared behind the wakes of bigger boats moved in occasionally to bellow: "Look out, your mast's falling off!"

One huge Donzi, piloted by a beer-drinking, bare-chested maniac with a German World War II steel helmet atop his head, circled Ondine ceaselessly and unsteadily, blowing raspberries on a multitone horn.

Bigger and faster than life size, the carnival roared along as if everyone was hurtling happily to oblivion. "O.K.," Huey finally said, "get the main on her." And the long, exhausting task of putting Ondine under sail began. Threading through the crowd, we heeled first under double headsails. Then, as the breeze slackened briefly, the big genoa rumbled up the headstay, the crew hauling it hand over hand. There were even more frantic cheers from the fans until at last, with a farewell toot, toot, on its horn, the last spectator boat abandoned us.

Next day the world had turned upside down. Gone were the cloud-flecked skies and the comfortable temperatures; replacing them were torrents of rain and tempests that punched first from starboard, then port, with heavyweight blows that caught Ondine's sails aback. As we tacked and tacked again, great ropes of water connecting sky and sea suddenly spiraled upward, whirling and twisting. Waterspouts capable of drowning even super tankers were forming all about. One spawned just to leeward, leaving a bubbling sore in the sea where the surface licked upward. Against a continuous background of lightning, the spouts formed, dissolved and formed again. "Bear off away from it," yelled Long at the helmsman as still another reared right ahead.

The ocean behaved as if it were demented. Wave heads butted one another with no apparent reason or direction; rain belted even the albatross flat. Thankfully, after no less than 18 spouts were counted, the last one finally spun away and the wind came through from the southwest. But not before the jib topsail had fluttered helplessly down its stay.

To determine what was wrong, 220-pound engineer Nick Hilton tried going up the headstay in a bosun's chair. On his first try he swung around so violently that he quickly came down again. On his second try, strapped securely into the chair, Hilton made it up the 92-foot mast and brought the jib topsail halyard down with him. At its end dangled a shackle that theoretically was unbreakable and as big as your hand. It had cracked clear through.

Somewhere, off in the distance, other vessels were having an even rougher time. The highly touted American sloop Rage, second overall in this year's Bermuda and transatlantic races, lost her mast while pounding through rough head seas, as did another boat. Altogether 13 boats failed to make the finish, the biggest dropout rate in Sydney-Hobart history.

The fierce weather discouraged some skippers and even crews, but it didn't bother the lurking whales. They were there, all right, just as predicted. Quickly, Long decided to take a novel precaution. "Keep the generator running all night," he ordered, on the theory that, because whales have poor eyesight and good hearing, the sound of a diesel engine might scare them off. The idea worked, or seemed to, since the whales didn't bother us. Neither, fortunately, did a stray mine that was supposed to be drifting around in the dark.

Actually, the worst thing was the cold. Ondine's hands fought a continuing undeclared war with each other for the favored position farthest under the midship cockpit shelter. The losers huddled on sailbags with hands locked under armpits to ward off biting temperatures, freezing spray and driving rain. A second on watch became a minute, a minute an hour, an hour a century in the inky iciness. By contrast, the warmth below was too good to be true. Instead of making life more endurable, it only made going on deck tougher.

As it always does, the wind moderated in time and the sun came out again, and by the time Ondine led the fleet into Storm Bay the wind had almost failed. We began then to worry seriously about several smaller boats which persistently nipped at Ondine's heels for first-across-the-line honors, a goal she has never failed to achieve in any race she's entered. The nature of this one was against winning on corrected time. We knew it would take a miracle to do it, and no miracle appeared. Later on we learned that the corrected-time honors went to Koomooloo, an eye-catching Australian sloop owned by young (32) D. J. O'Neil. But the welcome that lay ahead of us as first arrivals in Hobart almost made up for the loss. It was even more incredible than the send-off in Sydney. Nowhere in the world are there sailing fans such as those who inhabit isolated Tasmania. They have even built a stadium at shoreside for devotees to watch races in the Derwent River. "We've only got 400,000 people in the state," said a local skipper, "yet I've seen as many as 100,000 watching our marine carnival."

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