Hobart to Sydney race: December 2016

We bring a report from the December, 2016 Hobart to Sydney race, another historic event sadly cancelled, for the first time in its history, due to the global coronavirus pandemic. For 75 years, the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race has become an icon of Australia’s summer sport. It attracts huge media coverage for the Boxing Day start on Sydney Harbour.

Originally contributed by long-standing OGA member, Bill Gale who is also a member of Sydney Amateur Sailing Club (SASC),  Sean’s race report was first published in the SASC newsletter, February 2017.

My father, Cliff Gale, designed ‘Maluka’ a lengthened ‘Ranger’ for the Clarke brothers as an ocean cruiser. She was built in 1932 by the fabled Billy Fisher at Botany Bay and fitted out by the Clarkes who sailed her to Hobart ten years prior to the first race. Sean Langham took her to Hobart in the big race and her performance against a fleet of mostly ‘state of the art’ ocean racers is astonishing. Very few of the fleet are older than ten years, no other anything like as old as ‘Maluka’.

85-year old gaffer, ‘Maluka’ wins her class in the Hobart to Sydney Race, 2016

‘Maluka’ at the start of Sydney to Hobart yacht race, 26 December 2016 Photo: John Jeremy (SASC)

Three days, 19 hours, 38 minutes and 7 seconds: the time it took ‘Maluka’ to sail the course in the 2016 Rolex Sydney-Hobart yacht race. Her average of 6.9 knots reads as a nice slide to Hobart. Reality was that, even though the crew of ‘Maluka’ enjoyed almost perfect conditions, the race was punctuated by many sail changes, calms and the almost-mandatory 40+ knots of wind around Tasman Island which was so shrouded in fog that the light was not visible.

I had faith in ‘Maluka’ to win the coveted Tattersalls Cup. To do so would require a revisit of her rating and crewing. With my close friend Peter Inchbold at a loose end after his long-time skipper Roger Hickman passed, we decided that we’d both honour Hicko and race together but, moreover, prepare ‘Maluka’ with no compromise.

The inspiration to race her was borne from my personal discontent with the push-button sailing I’d found myself into as well as wondering how the Clarkes got this little girl across the Strait. Six races later and she still amazes me, takes me to my roots of sailing and fills my heart with joy.

The attempt to win the Hobart race with a 1932-built gaff-rigged 30 footer may seem a little ambitious. Especially as the IRC rule does not favour yachts with gaff and bowsprits that tack a genoa. So, firstly, the rating had to be reviewed. With my friends at Doyle we set about designing a ‘new’ sail plan. The irony is that what we ended up doing was to revert to her 1932 sail plan by removing the symmetric running spinnaker and the overlapping genoa. Mainsail area was rationalised with less roach. A new working jib was constructed along with a code zero spinnaker and a spinnaker staysail was added. The code zero and staysail are of Stratis cloth and were designed and constructed with the view of being as fast as possible but with no requirement to last past one race. I am very pleased the flying shapes have not distorted and they appear to be able to race many more Hobarts!

Added to the sail program was a study of Maluka’s mast and rigging set up. To support the code zero Noakes fitted longer spreaders as well as fitting a Dyform wire forestay. All mast components were either replaced or tested. New B&G instruments were fitted which interface with the new B&G cockpit-mounted chart plotter. Maluka’s navigator, Shaun McKnight, was able to overlay Roger Badham weather and routing for the race on the deck screen.

With months of preparation behind us the six crew of Peter Inchbold, Peter Langman, Rick Wood, Shaun McKnight, Erin McKnight plus myself launched ‘Maluka’ from the slings at Noakes just four hours prior to the start.

Maluka’s underwater hull was meticulously prepared by Noakes staff, so it was with confidence that we set off to start the great race once more. The race start was the way ‘Maluka’ raced the whole race. The pin end was favoured so she fought her way to the front line and started two lengths up from the pin. Hailing for water she tacked to port and ducked two boats to pop out in clear air. She became possessed to hang on as the larger boats slowly but surely passed her. Once at sea ‘Maluka’ set her largest sail plan and scurried south. Our sights were set on ‘Azzuro’, a S&S 34. If we could keep her and ‘Love & War’ in sight then we were in for a chance. Azzuro’s crew frantically attempting to hold off ‘Maluka’ spun into a Chinese gybe. It was now dark and, with ‘Maluka’ having spinnaker, spinnaker staysail and full main with preventer strapping down her sky-wood boom, there was an anxious moment as we slid by Azzuro’s stern.

Advice from Clouds (Roger Badham) was to be as far offshore as we could to attempt to miss the southerly change transition. The strategy paid off and, even though we experienced moments of calm, the wind swung back to the north and north east within a few hours. Day two saw heaving running conditions. Our take-no-prisoners approach to sailing ‘Maluka’ meant that she had three on the helm and, by allowing the cockpit to fill with water, she maintained sufficient stern- down trim to carry full sail in winds exceeding
30 knots. At the time I didn’t admit it to the crew but this was, to me, both exciting as well as frightening sailing. With the spinnaker pole as far aft as possible and tweaked down to deck level we drove ‘Maluka’ by the lee with a preventer on the boom and the gaff laying around the mast to leeward she fairly smoked and tore up the miles. With speeds on day two and three of 13, 14 and 15 knots ‘Maluka’ was able to chalk up a 240 n mile day.

Sheets eased Photo: Richard Harris

For ‘Maluka’ and her crew day three brought the biggest surprise. Now in an easterly wind the Code Zero was deployed. With a course set to close Tasman light, ‘Maluka’ constantly reached speeds of 9.2 knots in a straight line with no wave or current assistance. I am still somewhat astonished that the little girl could do such a speed as I always felt her hull speed to be in a vicinity of 7 knots.

It is indeed a measure of he who makes the least mistakes will generally win the race. My misjudged lay line to Tasman had ‘Maluka’ steering 270 degrees for two hours. With my heart in my throat I truly believe the race had been lost there and then. However there was more in store. With Tasman bearing 000 we were hit with a 40+ knot blast from the north. A scrambling crew had her reefed and plunging on towards Cape Raoul only to be becalmed in Storm Bay for some hours. The sail from the Iron Pot to the finish was a test of patience and a fair channelling of Roger Hickman and Cliff Gale to will ‘Maluka’ on towards the finish.

As ‘Maluka’ ghosted across the line I looked up at the gaff peak and with tears and laughter hugged the crew. I pondered how Cliff would have felt to see his old SASC burgee flying proudly. ‘Maluka’ and her crew had truly arrived. First place in IRC Division 4 and first yacht home under 9.5 metres. The Plumb Crazy Trophy to adorn Maluka’s bulkhead will long be associated with a great race sailed with wonderful friends and my boy Pete, who incidentally tells me what to do on the foredeck these days!

Sean Langham, Sydney Amateur Sailing Club

Sydney to Hobart Race