FEATURE - The race of the Gold Coast

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ABC’s SCOTT ALLE joins the triumphant racing yacht Gold Coast Australia for the sprint leg of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race across the Tasman

FEATURE - The race of the Gold Coast
FEATURE - Gold Coast Australia

Really, long-haul ocean racing isn’t for everyone. One description is a "sadistic social experiment". But if you have the cash, and the desire, one way to experience the deeply humbling experience of pitting yourself against what Conrad terms, the ocean’s "conscienceless temper", and learn the real value of seamanship, then the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race cannot be overlooked.

In early December, I hitched a ride on one of the ten 68ft one designs competing in the current instalment of the race, and found myself re-discovering why, like so many others, I have a love and intense dislike of this sport.

The Clipper race broadly follows the wake of those glorious speed machines of the Age of Sail, and the 14-knot average of the Cutty Sarkon one voyage was glimpsed all too briefly on the 1300 nautical mile "sprint" from New Zealand to the Gold Coast.

I arrive in Tauranga, on the Bay of Plenty, 24 hours before the race start and headed straight to the marina to meet my crewmates and stow my gear aboard the current race-leader.

A cheerful sign tacked above the companionway proclaims, "Everyone brings joy to the Gold Coast Australia... some when they join... some when they leave."

I discern during the briefing given by our skipper Richard Hewson that a crewmember on the previous run across the Southern Ocean from Geraldton, WA, a surgeon from the UK, may have been in the latter category. As Richard explains the ‘legger’ in question won’t be reclaiming his bunk, and has generously left his sleeping bag behind.

The trip will take seven to 10 days, up the northeast coast of NZ, then hopefully some reaching and running across the Tasman. We’re taking 19, three media extras, including me, thanks to Gold Coast’s stellar performances so far.

Richard’s masterful weather routing has seen GCA take the gun in each leg, securing the sought-after yellow pennant. The crew, ranging in age from 22 to 72, are justifiably proud of their achievements over 20,000nm of racing and wants to cap it off with a record-equalling homeport victory in Southport.

We (the media extras) are told we can do as little or as much as we choose. It’s sometimes difficult to work-out how you can contribute, but the boat I usually sail on is a modified Open 60, so I have a fair idea of the loads involved, and the physical and mental rigours ahead.

"And that’s what Clipper is, a chance for each crewmember to discover the potential within themselves they never knew existed"

There’s a wide range of sailing experience onboard. Wayne, an army officer from Townsville is doing the whole trip and takes us newbies through our PFD checks. Veronica, a sales manager from Auckland is instantly welcoming and confesses as a committed twilight racer, this is shattering her comfort levels.

The Clipper started back in 1996, as Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s vision, to provide a platform for largely novice sailors to achieve a circumnavigation. The qualities of self-reliance and seamanship that saw him guide his 32ft ketch Suhali to an epic victory in the first non-stop round-the-world race in 1969 are enshrined in the race rules.

Points are deducted for broken spinnaker poles and trashed sails, the idea being to sail conservatively, and to the conditions. The old adage that first you have to finish, to win, isn’t so trite considering the number of boats that start offshore races with just the prestart and start sponsorship exposure as the main reason for heading to the line.

Before we head out into the South Pacific, though, there are some housekeeping matters to attend to and we have to grind the boat back to the dock using the single pedestal that controls the Yankee and staysails, on the cutter rig.

I volunteer and quickly Fred Tooley, a wiry 72-year-old from Auckland, slots into the other side.

"Just have to test things out," he confides. "Took a bit of a knock on the last leg."

In fact Fred’s still recovering from a couple of severely bruised ribs and a nasty gash to his arm courtesy of a Southern Ocean roller. He isn’t the only one. At one stage Tauranga’s hospital had its own "Clipper" ward, with 17 patients suffering a range of injuries sustained in the 60-knot winds and 7m seas.

We pick-up speed and the handles are spinning nicely; Fred’s long hours in the gym are evident as GCA
glides back onto the dock for provisioning and mechanical checks.

I casually let off a sheet. "Not like that," snaps Fred. He explains to me how to ease to minimise the risk of arbitrary finger shortening. I know it, but take the admonishment and think it’s going to be an instructive foray out on the big blue.

Race morning is taken-up with checks of camera gear, and the usual scramble for extra batteries. I feel sorry for the reporter from the local Gold Coast paper who’s turned-up with bright gumboots to ward-off shrivel-toe. That turns to incredulity and some admiration when she says she’s virtually never been sailing. We are assigned the bunks at the bow closest to the watertight bulkhead. The skipper takes one look at her boots and offers her his deck shoes.

The anticipation builds as the bowmen and women on the Gold Coast’s nine competitors slip their lines to the cheers of dockside supporters and spectators. We are last away, and having paid homage to the watchful Maori deity at the port’s entrance, finally line-up in a 15-knot northeasterly.

The start’s clean, and we are mid-line, close to De Lage Landen (a Dutch financial house) and Visit Finland. The Dubois designs are all supposed to be identical, but in fact Finland
is a new boat, launched only last year, and it’s soon obvious she has a speed advantage over us.

On the previous legs from Southampton to Rio, on to Capetown, then to Geraldton and Tauranga, skipper Richard Hewson has used his navigational experience piloting tankers through the oceans’ hazards, tapping weather systems to put the boat in winning positions. Tenacious crew work in storms has solidified the tactical gains. But this is a sprint, roughly two Sydney Hobarts, and it’s going to be much closer.

We settle into a rotating three-watch system of four hours.
I help at the mast with a few hoists, and about 10pm we reef in the rain as the gusts hit 25kts.

The Yankee headsail from Hyde in its bag is easily over 100kg, and pulling it down on a pitching deck in the middle of the night requires teamwork and stamina. A voice like a megaphone is a bonus. But the foredeck crew, ably led by 22-year-old Dan "Tigger" Oliver, is up to the task and the sail change goes smoothly.

Day 2 dawns in light airs with a drifter, the sun is out and I opt for a straight fruit breakfast instead of the huge bowl of porridge favoured by those who didn’t succumb to last night’s bumpy conditions.

Meals are prepared by those on "mother" duty, and it’s a major undertaking. Tuna and rice mornay, pasta, shepherd’s pie and even freshly baked bread from a small but highly efficient oven, are all on the menu.

There’s even consideration for those suffering from mal de mare, a rare concession aboard a racing boat. On Gold Coast genuine efforts are made to alleviate their plight, ensuring a faster recovery and contribution to the common goal.

Unfortunately, though, Richard’s tactic of heading offshore in search of more consistent breeze doesn’t pay-off and we head toward the northern tip of NZ in ninth place. "We can come back from here, we’ve done it before," he enthuses during the daily happy-hour briefing.

And by the time we round North Cape his prediction is right, a series of well-timed gybes past spectacular craggy scenery sees us back in second, just 7nm astern of Visit Finland.

The next 36 hours under spinnaker is straight out of the brochure, reminding me of those rare Bass Strait crossings when you keep expecting the good times to run in the form of a rapidly approaching dark line of cloud on the horizon.

The front that eventually hits us and the fleet in the middle of the Tasman is prefaced by a four-point drop in the barometer in the afternoon. By the time my watch starts at 8pm, we’re in the thick of it, gusts tipping 40kts and four-metre waves. I’m paired with world-class British dinghy sailor Pete Ellis on the helm, and we take about 45-minute turns wrestling our bucking 40-tonne charge over the waves, which slap into the boat just forward of the beam.

We’re getting bashed, but I have confidence in the Shanghai-built hull, its composite sandwich construction made of two layers of glass fibre, with a layer of balsa wood in between, can take this kind of punishment and much worse.

Every now and then the moon illuminates a serrated seascape of small cliffs flecked with white foaming tops. The crew in the snake pit, or halyard bay, at the base of the mast endure waves washing over them every 10 minutes or so. All of a sudden a bigger swell rolls up and over the side and slams 34-year-old project manager Anna Guthrie into the lifelines. Her wet-weather overalls absorb some of the impact, but the next day her knee is the size of a mango. Downstairs, of course, it appears even worse.

But there’s ample reward at the first position update of the day as Richard records in his blog: "We made some fantastic ground yesterday after placing ourselves in a good position after the storm to take advantage of the southwesterly winds and it was fantastic to find at yesterday’s 0600 sked that we had made 14nm on Visit Finland and De Lage Landen
and were then 10 miles in the lead.
The mood on Gold Coast Australia was fantastic when we heard the news, however our winning position has been slowly slipping away at each sked as De Lage Landen
and Visit Finland
make better speeds towards Southport and the Gold Coast."

The skipper’s ability to sift the highly complex interplay of wind and current with only the race weather information, no outside internet downloads, is super impressive. His decision to track up the western edge of the Britannia Bank or seamount puts us in the box seat with less than 100nm to go.

Our converging course from the south means we track up to Visit Finland
and DLL
in a light afternoon breeze. We can see each other easily, they’re slightly higher than us and until the sun sets it’s back into playing the wind shifts with just the Yankee 1 and full main.

Again Richard tacks away, this time to the southeast, where the breeze is filling-in. We get the jump and quickly hoist the staysail to try and capitalise on our slender advantage.

As the wind freshens, we fall away a few degrees and Finland crosses behind us in the darkness to become the windward boat. The extra knot they’ve had all race is whittling down our lead, so Richard calls for everyone on the rail all night to wring every last metre from Gold Coast.

We plough along doing 11 and 12kts in 20kts of breeze, Finland’s starboard light, less than a nautical mile away, is a fixed orb. We trim and tweak for hours but there’s no budging them.Finally, with the sun’s rays glinting-off the Gold Coast’s high-rises Richard plays his last card. As Finland
sails under headsails, we peel-off and hoist the kite. After nine days, and an all-nighter the crew springs in action. It’s a great moment and I can’t help but feel proud of their commitment.

The kite billows over the foredeck and our speed picks-up, but we just can’t reel Finland
in and they take the gun at 4.44am with us six minutes behind, the closest finish in the race’s history. It is also
Gold Coast Australia’s
first defeat in six races.

We’re disappointed, naturally, to have almost snatched it, but we know we left nothing out there, and we give them a rousing cheer.

Richard is gracious in the post-race analysis.

"Everyone did their best and the crew worked really hard," he says. "They sailed to the best of their ability, pushed themselves beyond the point they would normally push themselves in everyday life and that’s all I can ask for."

And that’s what Clipper is, a chance for each crewmember to discover the potential within themselves they never knew existed.

Some of my former shipmates are now threading their way across the Celebes Sea to Singapore. For them the journey is still unfolding and I’m envious.


1. Supporters farewell Gold Coast Australia
as they leave the Gold Coast at the start of Race 7 to Singapore.

2. The ten skippers are presented with hampers by Southport Yacht Club CEO, Neale Hollier, on behalf of the restaurants who adopted the teams during the stopover.

3. A beam lights-up Gold Coast Australia
in front of the Gold Coast skyline.

4. Gold Coast Australia
skipper Richard Hewson from Tasmania has proven to be a formidable sailor.

5. There was a traditional Maori kapa haka farewell from the Tuwairu Performing Arts for the Clipper Yachts at Tauranga Bridge Marina.

6. The Clipper Race fleet.

7. With a full kite, Gold Coast Australia
departs Cape Town, South Africa for Geraldton, WA.

Gold Coast Australia starts Race 6 from Tauranga, NZ, to the Gold Coast.

Famed British solo-circumnavigator Sir Robin Knox-Johnston began the Clipper race in 1996, his vision to provide a platform for largely novice sailors to achieve a circumnavigation.

From Trade-a-Boat Issue 423, Feb 2012.


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