To Race On or Retire? That Was the Question

Being where you are having the most fun is usually the right answer. From "First Beat" January 14, 2008

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For Australian ocean racers who wish to eschew the rigors of the annual Sydney-Hobart Race--or who simply come to their senses after getting their brains beat out in one of the rougher editions--there is an eminently sensible and civilized alternative. The annual Sydney-Coff's Harbor Race starts a week after the Hobart, on January 2, and takes its fleet on a 210-mile course northward (as in, towards the equator, not away from it) to a seaside holiday resort where all manner of merriment reportedly ensues.

Sounds good, right? So when an old sailing pal, Rod Mackay, asked me to come along on the boat he was racing, a Laurie Davidson-designed 34-footer called Illusion, I happily accepted. Rod's a "Fair Dinkum" Aussie who ran boats out of my hometown of Newport, RI, for several years before returning to his roots in Newcastle, where he works as a yacht broker. He's also good for more than a few chuckles so I was psyched to sail with him again, even though it meant a bit of a scramble to get to the boat on time, as I'd just finished racing the Hobart myself.

This year's Coff's Harbor Race, however, went pear shaped even before it began. It's been a weird, mainly crummy summer in Oz, especially for the residents of Queensland, who have endured non-stop easterly gales and monsoon rains; the combination of the two forced the closures of countless beaches all along the coastline and, you guessed it, Coff's Harbor, the entrance to which became impassable.

But rather than send everyone home, the Royal Prince Alfred YC, the event's organizers, went to Plan B. Though Coff's Harbor was scrapped, they laid out an approximately 180-mile course from the original starting line, in Pittwater just north of Sydney, with three legs: 65-miles north, around Boondelbah Island off Port Stephens; 90-miles south to Botany Bay, Captain Cook's first landfall in Australia; then 25-miles back to Pittwater. Little did I know, this new "Pittwater to Pittwater Race" was going to be strange and special on several counts.

Rod had us set up for a sweet start until we were fouled by not one, but two boats barging out of the blue. Still, we got away relatively clean and sailed out of Pittwater into the lumpy Pacific in about 5-8 knots of easterly wind. The going, to be honest, was rather tedious, and though the northeast sea breeze filled in at mid-afternoon, there wasn't much punch to it, only about 10 knots. It was a long evening's sail, much of it a beat, to get up and around Boondelbah, which we finally managed to do at around 0730 on January 3, nearly 20 hours after our start. The pace was not what you'd call "blistering."

The breeze did fill in from the south as the day progressed, and we changed down to the No. 2 headsail as we bashed our way toward Botany Bay on a lively close reach. By mid-afternoon we were nearing Pittwater and Rod's friend, Illusion's owner and skipper, Graham Jackson, had pretty much had his fill. Illusion's berth was just a few miles away. The forecast was for fading wind to come back around from the north. Most of our competition was out of sight, over the horizon. We had fifty miles, at least, to sail. It had all the potential to be another long, stinking night. Graham asked me what I thought about bailing, and I told him it was his call, and I'd support his decision either way. Yes, I admit, it was a girly-man answer...and one I'd come to regret.

That's because, when Graham put the matter up to a vote, the decision to keep racing among the other five members of the crew, including Graham's son, Daniel, was unanimous. Rod was particularly adamant. "I've never not finished a race I started," he said. And that was that.

It was also the beginning of a terrific night of sailing. The breeze held as we roared past Sydney and set a kite to take us into the mark in Botany Bay. "This is our country's Plymouth Rock," said Rod, and I felt honored to take it in with an all-Aussie crew.

We beat back out of the Bay and changed to Illusion's brand-new jib top, which had us leaping off waves at anywhere from 7-9 knots. The breeze held, and we were laying Pittwater on starboard, on a nice, tight reach. And lo and behold, we'd caught a couple of boats by soldiering on, and were back in a boat race.

Illusion covered the 25 miles to the finish line in a little over three hours, finishing just after midnight. It was probably another hour before we tied up at the Royal Prince Alfred, but even so, the bar was open and the place was rocking. The big platters of hot, salty chips tasted fantastic with the icy pitchers of cold beer.

The Pittwater to Pittwater Race had ended up, astonishingly, being a fantastic sailing experience, and Rod couldn't resist giving me a little dig about the race, one we very nearly abandoned. "What did we have better to do?" he said. "We were already out there, racing with our mates. What better place was there to be?"

A lesson had been learned, all right, but it didn't really hit me until the next day. At the moment, it was enough to be sipping a brew with my pals, enjoying that feeling you always (and only) get when you leave it all on the racecourse.