Ocean Racing Club of Victoria (ORCV) Commodore Noel May commented "This is a race run for yachties by yachties. It presents an amazing challenge to the participants and is run with a level of spirit and camaraderie not often seen. There are no fat wallet boats here just great sailors working hard to earn the right to wear the yellow cap of a Westcoast racer."
The 480 nautical mile blue-water classic Melbourne to Hobart Yacht Race was the brainchild of Stan Gibson from Hobson's Bay Yacht Club in Melbourne, and Dr John Cannon at Derwent Sailing Squadron in Hobart. It was intended as an alternative for Victorian and South Australian sailors who wanted to be in Hobart for the celebrations but did not want the logistical hassle of getting the boat up to Sydney to compete in the Sydney to Hobart.
The proposed race received widespread criticism at the time because of the fearsome reputation of the West Coast of Tasmania. Critics at the time described it as Russian roulette with yachts. However, Stan Gibson had done a study of the weather patterns at the time and convinced critics that it was not as dangerous as initially believed in its inaugural year of 1972. Now in its 35th year, the route takes the competitors in their yachts out of Port Phillip Bay on the 27th of December every year, across Bass Strait, travelling down the rugged West Coast of Tasmania and rounding the southern-most tip of Australia before heading up the Derwent River to the finish in Hobart. Despite the early reservations the race has proven to have an enviable safety record due largely to the careful management and education programs put in place by the ORCV. The ORCV are a leader in ocean racing safety in Australia.
In 1998, the year of the tragic Sydney to Hobart race where 6 people died, the Melbourne to Hobart Yacht Race was fortunately delayed by 24 hours. David Burton, the Commodore of the Ocean Racing Club of Victoria at the time, decided that conditions were so unsafe the race would be postponed. Conditions in Bass Strait, included 50 knot storm force south-westerly winds and large seas, and conditions at the Heads were so difficult they were closed to shipping. The postponement was only the second in the history in the Melbourne to Hobart with the other occurrence in 1993.
The race presents in five parts each with its own challenges. The Bass Strait crossing to the gap between King Island and the North West corner, North West corner (Cape Grim) to the South West Cape (the West Coast), the South West Cape and Maatsuyker Island to Whale Head (the South Coast), Whale Head across the bottom of Bruny Island and into Storm Bay and finally the Derwent into Hobart.
The race starts in Bass Strait, a notorious piece of water which often experiences strong South Westerlies at this time of year. Add to this the fact that there are some tricky currents, especially towards the gap between King Island and the North West corner. Most navigators concentrate on when they will arrive at the gap and where they should pass through it. This can significantly affect a boat's position going into the coast.
The West Coast proper starts at Cape Grim. Although the wind is often from the West or North West, there are many challenges in this section. This is a totally unsheltered stretch of water, the coast forming the dreaded lee shore. Winds are often very strong and big swells come off the Antarctic Ocean. Last years race saw 9 metre waves off Strachan and a couple of days of winds over 40 knots. A very low cloud ceiling meant the nights were pitch black with zero visibility outside the boat. All this is quite typical.
Another "feature" of this and the following section is the almost complete lack of bolt holes for boats to shelter in case of extreme weather or damage. Many boats suffered damage in last year's race but continued racing with jury rigged repairs because there was literally no other option. Before committing to the West Coast section, skippers always make sure their boats have no major damage.
The South Coast can often be the highlight of the trip. The South West Cape and the South Coast are some of the most beautiful areas of the world and the sail across often gives you a view of those from a perspective rarely granted to the land based bush walker.
However there is often a cost as you are sailing on the edge of the Southern Ocean with strong Westerlies driving the boats hard from behind and raising massive swells. Last year was not atypical with winds up to 60 knots being experienced. The main trick in this section is to go South of Maatsuyker Island. This is the furthest South the fleet goes. After that there is a feeling that the worst is over and you are heading North again.
Past Whale Head, the end of the South Coast, the fleet heads North West around Bruny Island and the Friars. Some boats with local knowledge have been known to go through the Friars but most tend to go around and avoid tempting fate. Past the Friars and the boats enter Storm Bay proper. At this stage you often gain sight of boats in the other race. Tactics vary according to the wind. Most boats will try and keep clear of the high headlands along Bruny Island which can often throw wind shadows.
The race can be won or lost on the fickle section up the Derwent River. Ideally no one wants to be caught in the river at night fall traditionally as the light fades the wind dies. Local knowledge can be so valuable here as the Derwent offers the experience of complex wind patterns and mechanisms.
The warmest of welcomes awaits the finishers at Elizabeth Pier. It is a point of honour in this race that no boat finish unheralded and many a yachty has been roused from the local watering holes or comfy berth to meet late night or early morning finishers. Somehow a cold slab is always produced no matter what the time and the previous finishers raise three cheers in honour of the crew.
The dockside celebrations this year will be further enhanced with the arrival of Robin Hewitt in his yacht Yoko for the 25th time. Hewitt a stalwart of the Victorian ocean racing scene will have completed all 25 of his passages in this same yacht. He is only the second competitor to achieve 25 races following Trevor Huggard's entry to the hall of fame last year, also with 23 of his passages on Yoko.