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From Gale to Becalmed, Team "Fine Line USA," a Beneteau First 47.7
Finishes the Sydney Hobart Race

By Roger McBride

December 26
Today is start day!

The fleet has a mandatory weather briefing at 8:30 AM. Two crewmembers are required to attend. Again, most of our crew is there. I notice that several other boats are well represented as well.

The forecast confirms what we saw on the Internet yesterday. Things have improved somewhat since the briefing on the 24th. But, difficult conditions with some gale winds and high seas are still in the forecast for day 2.

The docks at the marina are crowded with people quite early. Along with over a thousand sailors make last minute preparations or just staying busy to burn off nervous energy, there are wives, girlfriends, family, friends, the media, and the curious. If one is not already keyed up tight, the atmosphere on the docks will get you there.

Michelle is holding up well. Clearly sad and worried, she manages to hold back the tears until she is boarding onto a spectator boat along with other Fine Line wives, girlfriends, and families. Spots on this boat are not cheap. But, I found out later that Michelle thought that the spectator boat she was on was great.

At about 11:15 we leave the dock for the starting area a quarter hour ahead of our plan. We have the storm sails rigged to hoist. The boats are required to pass by an inspection boat with the storm sails set before the start.

The beaches and cliffs along Sydney Harbor are crowded with spectators. A large spectator fleet sits just outside yellow buoys marking the exclusion area. The Manly Ferry, which runs along much of the race area within Sydney Harbour, is fully loaded. Have I mentioned before that this event is a big deal here?

The start itself is a high intensity experience. There is only one start for all boats. But, the boats are split between two start lines that are only 0.1 nm apart. We are on the "Northern Line" along with the very fast, very big, line-honors boats. We get a middle of the fleet start and beat our way upwind towards our turning mark and through the heads.

Mike is driving the start. I call crossings on the beat to the open sea. One boat behind us after the first turning mark and before the second turning mark splits his jib midway up from luff to leech. I am reminded of Andy telling us that historically about 10% of the boats never make it past the heads on this race. We are cleanly out of the start area. Part one of the race is done in less than 45 minutes.

At 2:00 PM we go into our watch schedules. I am the third helmsmen/watch captain, who has a different watch schedule from the rest of the crew. So, I go down below to lie down.

My watch starts at 17:00. I go back up on deck about a half hour early and relieve on schedule. About half way through my watch we pick up a pod of dolphins that swim with us for the rest of my watch. We are on a broad reach, surfing occasionally on the swells. The sun is shining. Winds are 20-25 knots. Life is good.

December 27
During my 5:00-7:00 Am watch we go from a #3 reaching jib wing and wing, to the heavy air chute, to beating to windward with the #3 and a reef. We start to discuss how 18 to 20 knot winds seem light. Those wind speeds are what we are seeing in the occasional lulls.

Bird comes on watch and quickly reduces sail to a #4 and a double-reefed main. Our SOG is reduced to about 6.5 knots. Our strategy from the beginning was to sail conservatively and to preserve the boat.

By noon things are getting exciting. The weather has been deteriorating as the day progresses. By 12:30 PM we are down to a storm jib alone. Winds are 35 knots true and on the nose. Seas are 15-20 feet and choppy.

Movement on the boat has become very difficult. We have at least temporarily lost one person to a fall across the cabin. Another person appears to be lost to seasickness. A few more people appear to be on the verge of seasickness.

On my last watch of the evening we do quite well for a time. We have raised the trysail and are moving S to SE and 6.5 to 7.5 knots. Sees are around 30 feet, but not too uncomfortable. The crew sick list is up to four people.

December 28
The evening helm watches have run a little long. Fatigue is not a big factor in standing watch at the helm for us. But the cold is. During my first morning watch Mike and Phil discussing tacking. We have been heading offshore with the strategy of staying in deep water and east of the rhumb line. Near the end of my watch we decide to go from starboard tack to port tack and thereby to head back inland. We believe we are now one of the furthest boats out.

Some discussion of reducing sail occurs again. But, we decide not yet. The worry is that the boat is pounding quite a bit in the seas. It is impossible to drive each wave, as there is too much chop. Winds are mostly in the low thirties with some lulls into the middle twenties and occasional gusts up to 40. The sun comes out for a while making things seem a little more hospitable. Or maybe it just lets one appreciate the size of the waves better. Depends on ones perspective. The sun does not seem to help the seasick guys.

Despite the promise from the sunshine, the winds in fact build. We are now at steady 30 to 35 knots with some periods in the low forties. While I am at watch in the night we start taking on water from a through-hull fitting in the front of the boat. I understood at the time that we had blown the fitting out of the hull. I find out in Hobart that we actually broke a pipe between the seacock and the hull fitting.

A wooden plug is hammered into the leaking fitting with a winch handle. Then the crew proceeds to getting the water out of the boat. Bilge pumps, sponges and buckets, and half an hour or so get the boat "dry". The boat hasn't really been dry since Monday morning. As we have gone into colder air, the water entering from spray and soaked wet weather gear has been supplemented, or perhaps internally recycled, by condensation on the ceilings and walls of the cabins raining on us. I have become almost accustomed to the occasional drip of this "rainfall" on my head as I sleep.

A consequence of the blown fitting is the decision to again reduce sail to the storm jib alone. Getting the trysail down in almost 40 knots of wind and big seas proves to be rather challenging. The crew wrestling down the trysail "request" that I hold the boat into the wind to ease the pressure off the slugs. Doing so with almost no power and with large seas is predictably impossible.

Eventually we auto-tack after a wave knocks from head to wind onto port tack. Rather than tack the jib and gain steerage again, I decide to leave the boat hove to while we get the trysail down and lashed to the boom. Sitting at the helm while the crew works, I watch the boat slip slowly backwards in the water. It is very frustrating seeing distance south that has been difficult to gain slipping away. Once the work striking the trysail is done, we tack the jib, get some boat speed back, and then tack back to starboard and out to sea.

It has been a very frustrating day. It is clear now that I will not be in Hobart before Michelle. I am beginning to worry about whether I will be in Hobart by the end of the year.

December 29
My first watch is 4:00 to 7:00 AM. While I was asleep we got the trysail back up. With the trysail and storm jib up we are still underpowered. We still have some big seas. But mostly the waves are less than 20 feet. I flirt with the idea of putting up more sail. But, we are still seeing winds over 30 knots and each cloud brings a period of gusts. So, I stick with the conservative game plan.

In the underpowered conditions the boat is very difficult to steer. And the sail plan is badly out of balance with lots of lee helm. Gaining ground to windward is very slow.

Mike goes to a double-reefed main at 10:00 AM. At last we are moving again. My spirits lift a bit since I can now feel we are finally out of survival mode and into racing mode again.

Gradually we increase sail through the day to a #4 and the first reef.

We officially complete the crossing of the "Paddock". Although it is usually said that the boats cross the Bass Strait, most of the boats do not actually go into the area actually defined as the Bass Strait. Rather they stay in the Tasman Sea, in deep water east of the Bass Strait. That is certainly where we were.

At 19:00 we sight land. Mountaintops on islands north of the main part of the island state of Tasmania are in view. This further increases the general morale of the entire crew. All of the crew is back in action, although one or two have some limitations.

We hear some part of Australia Search and Rescue on channel 16 talking to Skandia. We cannot hear the Skandia side of the conversation. From the skeds and other radio traffic we are aware that Skandia has some kind of problem. But, we were not aware of what. Apparently now theSkandia crew is being evacuated. It is a strange feeling remembering Skandia sitting in her slip in Sydney while knowing the yacht is being abandoned.

At 11:00 PM I am awakened to activity that indicates that the boat is again taking on water. I guess that probably the plug jarred loose. This is later confirmed. Since the response to the problem seems to be well under control, I go back to sleep.

December 30
I go on watch at 12:30 AM. We have a full main and the #3 set with 15 knots of wind and 1-meter seas. The boat is rocking along nicely at just over 7 knots boat speed.

The Southern Cross is my driving guide. But, I am steering mainly to apparent wind angle and boat speed. We are basically on a beat up the Tasmanian coast. Phil calls for a couple of tacks to stay within a band of ocean close to the rhumb line. This sailing is simply wonderful.

I hear Phil saying from below that over 50 boats have retired. Don and I discuss how I am going to explain to Michelle why we are still out here. Don suggests I tell her we were out too far to get safely to port. There is a lot of truth to this. But, it does not seem to be an acceptable answer for the situation. Mentally I start practicing my apologies for worrying her.

Tom relieves me just before 3:00 AM. It is cold but relatively dry below deck and not nearly as uncomfortable as the past two days. Phil has the race website up. He is excited to have Internet access again. Lots of carnage is discussed and pictured in the website's race news. In our division, we are in eighth place of nine boats still racing.

I finally go to lie down. Mike has stolen my sleeping bag. Eventually something wakes him up and I get it back.

For 6:00 to 9:00 AM I am back on watch. The mountains of Tasmania are in clear view. We go to a full main and the Number One. It is a sunny day. Life is good. But, I am working on what to say to Michelle again. We are still on a beat and it looks like it will be December 31 before we arrive. Boo! Steve sees a whale come up for a breath. Just the one and I miss it.

At 10:00 AM Steve is driving the boat and I am off watch sitting on the rail. My handheld GPS tells me that we are 8552 nm from the Mt. Gay Visitor Center in Barbados and 117 NM from Tasman Island. Mentally, Tasman Island has become the "almost there" point in my mind. It is still 40 nm from the finish.

It is 6:00 PM and we are becalmed. We have seen 50-knot winds and now have less than 5 knots. What a contrast. Tom tries the A kite, then the masthead runner, then goes back to the jib. We are becoming a bit frustrated searching for boat speed.

Mike goes on watch and sails for about an hour. Then he sets the A kite, goes to the masthead runner, then sets the fractional runner. I guess it will be my duty when I go on watch to set the entire spinnaker inventory. The only one we haven't set in the last five hours is the heavy air chute that we refer to as the "bullet proof".

On watch again I do go quickly from the jib to the masthead spinnaker. We fly it through the watch. It is tough going for the spinnaker trimmers. Boat speed is low and the boat control is very poor. It is impossible for me to adjust the boat to the wind shifts and waves. I try to hold a fairly stable course and make the trimmers do all the work. Sandy is outstanding in dealing with this situation.

It is a dry, starry, picture-perfect night. We are now in the Tasmanian doldrums.

December 31
I wake up just after daybreak with Tasman Island in sight. It is a mark of the course and is at the entrance to Storm Bay. A wave of excitement runs through me.

We sail into Storm Bay avoiding passing too close to the high cliffs and mountains on the north coast to avoid getting in their lee. Two other boats, which entered ahead of us, have parked in this wind shadow. Storm Bay does not live up to its name today. It takes what seems to be an eternity to get across.

Despite being well back in the fleet and in our division, the crew morale is high. I was seriously concerned whether we would be able to finish the race this year. Some boats won't. But, it looks like we should make it.

One of the boats we passed in Storm Bay due to their sailing too close to the mountains is Nautica Footwear. They pass us back again a few miles from Iron Pot, which marks the mouth of the Derwent River and the last 11 miles of the course. We are now in a boat-to-boat race with them. They are not in our division. But, two similar size sailboats cannot come together on similar courses without a race occurring.

We follow Nautica up the river along the east side. This is the common wisdom for this part of the course. Current does not seem to be a factor and the winds are not from the average direction. So, we decide it is okay, or better to split with Nautica and follow the headed jibe. This tack carries us across the river from them and the separation grows to over a mile.

On the river we pick up a powerboat or two as escorts from time to time. They fall in behind us on our stern quarter taking pictures and waving. The line honors boats get a huge escort when they sail up the river to the finish each year. To me, having any boats taking an interest in us is a cool feeling.

Within a couple of miles we are in our own little first to finish race with Nautica. It is clear that the race is going to be close. Both of us are under spinnaker. We are slow and low coming in from the left side. They are very high and fast coming in from further back on the right side.

Since none of us have done this race, we are not quite sure where the finish line is. We get a visual on the finish mark. The other end of the line is not so clear. But we work it out. Getaway Sailing brings some of the girls out in their Zodiac to escort us to the finish. Emotions run high on our boat with cheers and waving from the RIB. We have to work to stay focused on getting the boat across the line as quickly as possible.

Nautica finishes just 20 seconds ahead of us. We console ourselves later with the knowledge that they were a long way ahead of us at the Tasman Island rounding. At the moment it does not matter. The spinnaker is dropped in good seamanlike fashion. Champagne is sprayed from the rib and cold beer as tossed onboard. I cannot begin to describe the emotion.

Hobart harbor control comes out to meet us and gives us docking instructions. We follow a guide boat to our slip, or "pen" as they call it. Passing through the breakwaters of the marina, there are crowds just hanging out watching the boats finish. We get applause from the crowd just for finishing. Tomorrow I will be one of these people applauding a late finisher. Michelle is up there waving and throwing kisses.

Once the boat is docked the reunions and serious partying begins. Despite five days without a shower, I get a big hug from Michelle. After the "So glad your back" and "So glad your safe" comes the "Don't ever worry me like this again". I tell Michelle that I worried that she would be really worried. She tells me that she worried that I would worry that she would worry. The circle ends there. It never occurred to me that she would get to that thinking.

Scotty's wife Elke delivered a case of Victoria Bitter. Simmons has arranged for two cases of Cascade. The race committee delivers a case of beer. Their beer has a picture of last year's winning boat on each can. The crew does its best to demolish the beer supply while hugging, kissing, telling stories, congratulating each other, and generally celebrating making the finish.

The arrival into Hobart was all that it was hyped up to be by anyone who had done it.

I promised myself that I would make midnight to see the New Year start in Hobart. Large quantities of beer on the dock, some champagne in there somewhere, three rum drinks at dinner, and not much sleep the last twenty-four hours conspire against me. Some of the crew that are either tougher or paced themselves better today make it to the "Custom House", the sailor destination here, after dinner. I fall asleep in my clothes in our room. Michelle tells me later that I got my kiss at midnight. I'll just have to trust her on that.

Read another story about the Beneteau 44.7

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