Sydney-Hobart Report: Warm Again, First Timer Reflects on Race

/SW/ correspondent Dennis Perkins recounts the frigid details of his first Sydney-Hobart Race

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Dennis Perkins

Well, my high tech solution to blogging -- using a BlackBerry with an external keyboard -- was a complete failure. As much as I wanted to provide timely updates, typing with waterlogged thumbs just didn't work. So, after much delay, I'm back behind a computer, the feeling is back in my finger tips, and I can recount the rest of my Sydney-Hobart Race adventure.My last entry detailed a delightful dinner with John Walker, the oldest skipper in the race. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and fortifying to think that John is still racing at 84…and doing it well!The evening ended on a less encouraging note when a cap came off a back tooth, and I spent the rest of the night trying to find a dentist who would see me on short notice. The thought of finding myself in the middle of the Bass Strait with a major toothache was less than appealing.After a frantic search, I located Pete Dayman, DDS, who raced on a Farr 40 out of the CYCA. Pete took pity on me, and I was in the chair first thing Tuesday morning. It struck me as ironic that the Dragon and I were going a parallel process. The Volvo's spinnaker and Code 0 were being stitched back together just as my cap was being re-glued. Well, we were both veterans of some rough seas. By mid morning, I was back at Birkenhead doing my part to get Dragon ready for the race. I inventoried EPIRBs, strobe lights, and PFDs, found bolts for the emergency steering equipment, and continued to try to understand this racing behemoth. To demystify the water ballasting system, I developed an "SOP," so that I would be clear on which of the 12 values to pull, and when. I also began to familiarize myself with the "guts" of the boat, and how to explain all this to my new bride, Susan. One image came to mind instantly. As an ER physician, she had shown me photos of her "office," the Trauma Bay. As I looked around the boat's innards, the resemblance between the Dragon's interior and Susan's Trauma Bay was remarkable. Substitute IV tubes for wiring, and I was pretty much working in my wife's "office."I was also fascinated by the instructions developed by the Norwegian crew in 2001, and still posted on the bulkhead. There were SOPs for every possible calamity, including, God forbid, "Piracy Attack." I was hoping there were no pirates in the Bass Strait, but I guess you never know. Most procedures were detailed, but it struck me that some could have been a bit more complete. In case of capsize, for example, it certainly made sense to "Get overview" and "Secure crew." But I wasn't sure just how helpful the instruction "See designers notes" would be if we capsized in the race. I'm sure they would be floating around somewhere.On Wednesday, the Dragon was - finally -- sufficiently prepared that she could be moved to the Cruising Yacht Club for a Cat 1 safety inspection. It was great to be back at the CYC, and Ed went up the mast in an attempt to retrieve a lost halyard and change out a broken wind instrument. Go Eddo! Ed took a camera, so I got to see what things looked like from some 85 feet above the deck. It was a magnificent scene, and we got a different perspective on the competitors: ABN AMRO and Skandia berthed right next to us. Wow, what a view!On Thursday, I was invited to dine with the crew of AFR Midnight Rambler - the team that had started all this to begin with. The amazing story of their triumph in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race was the thing that had initially captured my attention and much of my motivation for being here was driven by a desire to tell their story with a deep personal understanding of the race.It was great to see them all again and, remarkably, over dinner I got an email from Kristy McAlister. I had also read about Kristy's courage in 1998 when, as a rescue paramedic, she jumped into the maelstrom to save two sailors from the sinking boat, Stand Aside. I had interviewed Kristy in 2003, and later found out that her story was part of the "in development" film by Paramount on the Sydney-Hobart Race. Kristy was just wishing me "happy holiday," and it seemed a remarkable concidence that her note arrived during my meal with the Ramblers. She was astonished to find that I was doing the race, sent her greeting to the crew, and wished me luck. I told her to stand by in case I needed to be fished out of the Bass Strait. Friday we had a "long sail," far out past the Sydney Heads and into the evening. We encountered bigger seas and more wind than before. The wind was gusting over 30 knots, and the seas were around 12 feet. The crew had come a long way, but our spare mainsail, a leftover from the Around the World Race, wasn't up to the challenge. It came apart with loud crack. Looking on the bright side, this gave us a chance to practice lashing the main and set a storm trysail in something like the real conditions. A couple of people got seasick, and I got a little queasy. I've never been seasick, and have sailed in some rough waters like the Drake Passage. But I realized it could actually happen to me and, if it did, I didn't want it to be on the Sydney-Hobart Race. So, I reluctantly decided to take some Dramamine during the race. I ended the day wishing that we had more time on the water to practice…but time was running out. On Saturday we went through survival drills, and the morning began with a nice plunge into Sydney harbor. Climbing into a life raft with full foul weather gear was difficult, even in protected waters. But climb into the raft I did, and then swam back to the boat to be hoisted back aboard by Brett and Jungle. Here's a tip: put the sling on feet first, to make sure the helicopter doesn't whip it away before it's around your chest.Sunday was a lay day, but Ed and I volunteered to attend the race briefing at the CYC. The briefing included the latest weather forecast - the first one that I thought I could share with Susan. Previous headlines had been saying things like "Dangerous Weather Forecast for Sydney to Hobart Race," with accompanying stories talking about the 1998 race and boats sinking. Now they were saying that the "southerly buster" -- an intense depression typical of a boat-breaking Rolex Sydney Hobart -- forecast earlier in the week would be further offshore for the Boxing Day start of the race. Even though the wind might drop, however, still of concern would be a residual swell from the south driven by the 40 knot winds blowing across the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand on Christmas Day. The prediction was that these would clash with the warm current flowing south down the coast of eastern Australia, creating a "lumpy" seaway, more than capable of damaging the finely-tuned race boats in the southbound fleet. My thoughts were pretty much in line with those of Ray Roberts, skipper of Quantum Racing, who quipped, "Everybody's saying the winds are lightening off but I still think 30 knots is not light. To win this race you've got to finish the race." He went on to explain that, often, the hardest part of the race is the New South Wales Coast. "You've got a relatively shallow continental shelf and a hard southerly breeze pushing against a strong current so you've got very steep waves." The second part of the briefing dealt with search and rescue capability. John Rice, Senior Search and Rescue Coordinator, showed photos of all the aircraft that theoretically would be available to help, but then warned that at least some of them would be down for repairs and that fixed wing aircraft couldn't do much more than drop things on us. We were also briefed on the limitations of helicopters: some of the winches might not work; their time on station would be extremely limited if we needed to be pulled from, say, the Bass Strait; and that, if we were over 100 miles from the coast, choppers couldn't be used at all. Finally, we were informed that, if anything happened at night, we would have to survive until daylight, since there would be no winching at night.Sobering, to say the least. It dredged up thoughts about medevacs and Vietnam. I shook off those feelings, and focused on the fact that I had spent the money to buy the equipment I thought would give me the best shot at survival. After talking with Zack Leonard, coach of the Yale Sailing Team, I had decided on the Mustang Hydrostatic PFD. If I went over the side unconscious, it would inflate after being submerged in 4 inches of water. Art Vasenius, at the Sailing Proshop in Long Beach, encouraged me to keep a submersible VHF radio in my pocket. If a chopper were looking for me, he reasoned, it would be nice to be able to say something to the pilot, like, "I'm at your 4 o'clock." Made sense.And then there was my ACR P-EPIRB. Before the trip I had joked with Susan that it would absolutely ensure my survival since it transmitted on both 406 and 121.5 MHz. The 406 signal would be picked up by the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system run by NOAA. My Naval Academy room mate, Connie Lautenbacher, is now head of the NOAA, and Susan is quite fond of him. So, I assured her that Connie had a red phone by his bed and, once my signal was picked up, he would be notified immediately. And further, once that happened, Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, USN (Ret.) would spring into action and personally coordinate my rescue. Implausible? Maybe, but the very thought of it seemed to be reassuring. Monday was Christmas, and that could have been a pretty lonely day away from home had not Brett invited us to celebrate with his lovely family. We put on party hats, played games, and ate delicious home-cooked food. Ed and I both appreciated both the hospitality and the cuisine and - had we known the way we would be eating for the next four days - we would probably have stuffed our pockets with ham and cookies.Tuesday, Boxing Day, was the day we had been waiting for. I was amazed to think that I was now pulling away from the dock just like AFR Midnight Rambler in 1998. Of course, I was in a Volvo 60 and they had sailed a Hick 35. But it was the same feeling, and they would be racing again this year in a Farr 40.The start of the race was the intense, adrenaline filled experience everyone talks about. The day was sunny and the wind was great. The starting line is divided in two, to keep the smaller boats from being crushed by giants like Skandia and Maximus, both 98 feet. At 60 feet we were among the smaller boats in the big boat starting area, but we were right there with all fancy maxis favored to take line honors. I was so focused on not screwing up the runners that I didn't take it all in, but I saw AFR Midnight Rambler speed by us. What were they doing at this part of the line, I wondered? Trying to win another trophy seemed to be the obvious answer.We got off to a great start, but our pre-race equipment problems and lack of training time quickly caught up with us. As we came out of Sydney heads, the course turned to windward and we needed to drop our spinnaker. The VO 60 has a halyard locking mechanism at the top of the mast to take strain of the lines while under sail, but it took several attempts and precious time to release the lock and drop the sail. But the time we got it, we were rounding the mark and it was too late to control the sail. Ultimately, after much yelling we had to let the halyard run through the mast and drop the sail into the water. We pulled it aboard like a huge dripping fish net.Our strategy was to immediately head offshore to take advantage of exceptionally strong currents heading toward Hobart. This was clearly the right strategy, and for a time the tracking reports had us near the front of the fleet. However, there were pros and cons to our strategy. Although we never got sustained gale force winds, the combination of the three knots current in one direction and the previous several days of strong winds from the other, caused particularly difficult sea conditions offshore. These "lumpy" waves caused problems for us and many other boats. Essentially, the waves were compressed by the current, making them so steep that boats were lifted up by one wave and dropped with a crashing jolt on to the face of the next. The strain caused the rigging to fail on the VO 70 ABN AMRO, and on Maximus, toppling their masts and injuring six crewmembers. Another boat, the Koomooloo, broke a structural rib and quickly sank. The Koomooloo crew was recovered from life rafts, and there were no fatalities on the boats that were dismasted. But people were hurt and this was no cake walk. I could understand how a boat like Maximus - built for speed and relatively fragile - could come apart. But ABN AMRO had just won the Volvo 2005-06 Ocean Race, and had faced some of the toughest waters on the planet. Our problems weren't life threatening, but they were still serious. Our electrical system had been problematic before the start, and the constant shaking caused it to fail the second evening as we were hit by what Goldy described as a "rogue wave." They all seemed like rogue waves to me, but I remember this crash well. We were left with no communications or navigation instruments and for a while no lights. This led to a difficult night of sailing with just flashlights, compass and a hand-held GPS. I was pleased that the GPS I had taken to Antarctica (and decided to bring along at the last minute) came in handy. But fixing the navigation system was distracting and, by the time we got our navigation equipment back on line, our course strayed back over the continental shelf and out of the favorable current. We had fallen considerably in the standings. Back at home, Susan was glued to the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Race website. She saw boats sinking and "retiring," and Dragon (according to the yacht tracker), dead in the water. My new bride was worried.Except for the navigation problems, I was completely unaware that all this was going on. It was probably a good thing. I was completely focused on the task of offshore racing, which was both a new yet vaguely familiar experience. Since I had never done an offshore race, much less the Sydney-Hobart Race, the routine of trying to maintain maximum speed 24 hours a day was demanding.Our watches were 4 hours on, 4 hours off in the day time, and 3 on and 3 off at night. But I soon realized that 3 hours off didn't really mean 3 hours of sleep. First of all, it took time to get your PFD off and find a place to sleep in a cave filled with exhausted people and sails. Second, it seemed like, the minute I fell asleep, there would be some crisis, like a ripped sail. The call of "all hands on deck" would mean that I would soon be sliding out of the rack and engaged in a life and death struggle with some out of control object. If that didn't happen, we would change course, and the call of "tacking" meant that everyone would roll out of wherever they were trying to sleep and move to the opposite side of the boat so that their weight would be on the upwind side. This meant finding a new spot in the cave, and there was no reserved seating.At the same time, I realized that I was never really sleeping much at all. Part of it was that the steep waves that were causing damage to other boats were constantly pounding us as well. We were driving forward into the wind, "on the nose," and it felt to me like we hitting brick walls. There would be two or three, sometimes four or five consecutive and jarring crashes. Even though exhausted, I was hard pressed to really fall asleep.In the back of my mind, I was always preparing for the next crisis, or to get ready for my next watch so I wouldn't delay someone else from going below. This constant state of vigilance took me back, once more, to my experience in the Marines. In Vietnam, I never really slept because I never really knew what would happen next. The big difference here of, course, was that the crashing waves weren't high explosives, no one was actually trying to kill me, and this wasn't going to last for a year. Also, and this was a huge relief, I wasn't really in command of anything. I just had to find a way to do my job, to show up on watch, to find some way to contribute.My mantra for this mission had been, "Cultivate poised incompetence, and find a way to contribute." So far I had learned to live with my rookie status, but making a useful contribution was harder. Sometimes the experienced hands didn't seem sure of what they were doing, and overrides (tangles) on winches weren't that uncommon. Sometimes I would see experienced people doing things that didn't look right to me, but - with everyone trying to demonstrate their worth -- I was clearly not invited to make suggestions. In another life I might be a CEO and an author. Here, I was just a novice.In the middle of all this, I found a surprising coach. Jungle was a man of few words, and many muscles. When I first met him 10 days ago, he seemed like the most task oriented person I had ever met…with the possible exception of a couple Marine Corps gunnery sergeants. During our first day of trying to get Dragon ready for race, Jungle had been trying to screw something down in the dark innards of the boat, and I had held a light to help him. (One of my plans to contribute had been to make sure I would have equipment that might be needed.) Jungle completed that task and went on to the next without a word of acknowledgment. But now, with me stumbling around in the dark and Dragon crashing into brick walls, I found Jungle to be great at giving specific advice, like, "Don't hold the sail that way, you'll lose a finger." Good to know. And Jungle was also great at providing quick confirmation that I had actually been helpful: "Good job, mate," or simply, "Cheers." Not only that, but Jungle even tried to spare me "The Coffin." The Coffin was a rack with so little clearance that, once in, it was impossible to turn over. Jungle actually tried to get into The Coffin and give me a real berth. Because of the size of his chest (large) he found it impossible. I finally wedged myself in, but was relieved to hear the call "tacking" and immediately squeezed out of the claustrophobic Coffin, never to return. I'd rather sleep on wet sails.What was important about all this was knowing that there was someone (besides my great partner, Ed) who could give me clear instruction, affirm small accomplishments, and who even cared enough about me to inconvenience himself. (Note to self: remember that for next book).I did try to make myself useful by helping with other activities, like getting hot food to people on the next watch. While Steve created a lukewarm gruel out of God-knows-what, I held the stove and tried to get half-filled cups of the stuff to the people topside. Carrying cups from the stove to where it could be handed to someone on deck reminded me of that old game show "Beat the Clock" where contestants would be given some impossible stunt while the clock ticked away. I tried to time my movements between collisions with the brick walls, always looking for some way to wedge my body against something without spilling too much of the…er, food. I don't think I would have won much on the game show, but I was trying.I also tried to do my bit on deck. Besides wrestling with thrashing sails, I remembered Ed Psaltis' (skipper of the AFR Midnight Rambler) habit of taking the front rail position whenever possible. Hanging over the side as "rail meat" is not the most pleasant job, since the forward people absorb the most spray and wind. However, thanks to Martha Parker and Team One Newport, I had the best foul weather gear I could lay my hands on. Though I was mindful of a previous bout with hypothermia, I figured I could take the forward position whenever possible. I got cold, but it was a tangible way I could help.Other people made more dramatic contributions. At one point, Sammy had to climb the mast to make repairs, while Beeks tried to steady him from below. Climbing an 85 foot mast not an easy undertaking in any circumstances, but doing in the middle of the Bass Strait during a race was clearly above and beyond. Sammy did it with a chuckle - he seldom actually spoke, mostly chuckled - but this was clearly his "Oh, S--t" chuckle, not his "I'm amused" chuckle. As always, however, Sammy came through.By the third day I had more or less figured out my routine, but things continued to be challenging. Unexpectedly, I reenacted an AFR Midnight Rambler incident from the 1998 race.During the first few hours of the '98 storm, Chris Rockell, mainsail trimmer, bon vivant, and front line rugby player, was getting ready to come on watch when the boat was hit by a big wave. Chris floated through the air and his head hit a protruding bolt. Blood was everywhere and he touched his head, worried that he might have a concussion, and wondering if he would touch "hard or squishy." Turns out he was injured but OK, and they sailed on.In an inadvertent recreation of Chris' experience, I found myself trying to hang my wet weather gear on a small plastic hook dangling from a small clothesline in a forward compartment. This was the prescribed procedure for keeping water away from the navigation table, but getting to the hook required jumping over the head and other obstacles, then balancing with nothing to hang on to while trying to catch the hook. Also, people often got seasick in the confined space. Another Beat the Clock game. In my attempt to win the prize, we crashed into another big wave (was it a rogue?), and I went flying across the compartment and smashed my head against the hull. I saw stars, slid down to the ropes on the deck, and sat there stunned for a while. I had a hell of a headache, but it all seemed to be hard, not squishy. Ed found two Advils, and all was more or less well. I did notice, however, that few people used the clothesline by the end of the race. Most just collapsed, still wearing most of their wet weather gear. Sometime early Friday morning I saw a light in the distance, and it gave me encouragement. I was actually holding up better than I thought I would be, but a persistent voice was now repeating, "Are we there yet?" Much to my surprise, sailing in the Bass Strait had been easier than crashing down the coast. By 8:00 PM, we were really close to Tazi coast and I knew we were in the home stretch. For the first time, I started to relax. I was actually going to make it to Hobart!The time between that feeling and our crossing the finish line seemed interminable. As we sailed up the Derwent, I could see the lights of Hobart in the distance, but they never seemed to get closer. Sailing under spinnaker, we all peered intently into the darkness, and few words were spoken. It was strange, almost eerie, that the race would end in such silence. We drifted across the finish line in a dying breeze at 1:05 AM. On shore I saw three children holding sparklers to celebrate our arrival. Beeks' family had flown to Hobart, and served as our arrival party. We were 13th over the line, and I had expected a brass band, but three sparklers would do just fine. (I later learned that John Walker was 5th on handicap!!)We tied up, cleaned up the boat, and organized the sails on deck, in the dark. I was exhausted. Ed and I took our racing gear from the boat (it was all we had, since the bags we had shipped down we missing), and trudged toward The Old Wool Store where we had made reservations six months before. Standing there in my foul weather gear, my mind somewhat slowed by four days of physical exhaustion and lack of sleep, I took me a while to comprehend what the night clerk was saying. Our reservations, he explained patiently, were for the next night. They were completely full this evening, but tomorrow he could fit us into a studio with a roll away bed.I had heard Debby, my supremely efficient office manager, make the reservations. I knew it was their mistake. But nevertheless, as hard as it was to believe, I was now Steve Martin in a nightmare from "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles." I was too tired to be livid. Ed was, as always, patient.After wandering around Hobart, I finally found a room for us at the only other hotel in town, the Grand Chancellery. At 5:40 AM, I collapsed into a chair and called Susan. I was safe. I would be home soon.After my first real sleep in a long, long time, I awoke some time that afternoon. Hobart was one a big party. The Dragon had made it, AFR Midnight Rambler had made it, and I had made it. What a great feeling! Ed and I wandered around Hobart, and found that most of the crew had been partying since we tied up. We found Goldy, Andy, and Beeks having their quiet little drink (QLD) at the Customs House. Then we headed for the Shipwright Arms, where the crew of the AFRMR was given a standing ovation after their win in the 1998 race. Sure enough, there were the Ramblers, partying hard. It was great to see them, and I was honored when they asked me to sign a photograph of their little Hick 35, taken during the '98 race, and now hanging in the Shipwright Arms Hotel. The next day, at 10:30 am, December 31, Ed and I stepped on to a Quantas plane in Hobart, Tasmania. At 9:50 PM, December 31, I stepped out of a Quantas plane at JFK Airport in New York. And at 12:50 PM I was drinking champagne with Susan, toasting the New Year, in Branford, Connecticut. All in all, it was quite an adventure. I came away with a feeling of accomplishment, and the knowledge that a lofty goal can be personally revitalizing. All the training, preparation, and focus had paid off. I had come away with a deeper understanding of the story of the Midnight Rambler, and what it must have taken for them to win the Tattersalls Trophy in those incredible seas. And I had also come to understand leadership and teamwork in a different way, looking up from the bottom of the pyramid in a new and, often, foreign organization.But most of all, I come away with a feeling of appreciation for all those who supported me in this adventure: my wife Susan, my children, grandchildren, my colleagues and friends. It made such a difference! I looked at the poster my granddaughter, Elysia, made for me in Sunday school, and which I took with me in my pack. It made me smile.For now, I think I've had enough of Category One offshore racing. I'm sure Susan thinks I've had enough. However, my daughter, Holly, just sent a brochure on the Rolex Fastnet Race, and suggested we could do it as a family August 12th 2007! Let me ask my wife.Happy New Year!