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My first 'real' ocean race

Last Saturday the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia hosted the Noakes Sydney Gold Coast Race, an event that is second only in status to the Rolex Sydney Hobart among long ocean races. The event marks the start of a six-month program regarded as a key stepping-stone for owners and crew to gain vital offshore racing experience before the famous Boxing Day race.

The Sydney Gold Coast Yacht Race was first introduced in 1986 as ‘the great winter escape’ and since then the 384 nautical mile event has attracted fleets of between 70 and 80 boats each year with most of Australia’s best-known ocean racing yachts competing at some stage. Many use this event as a feeder to the Northern Winter races in the famous Whitsundays at Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island before returning to Sydney in time for the Hobart classic. The race is conducted in conjunction with the Southport Yacht Club, which provides club and marina facilities for the visiting yachts in a casual semi-tropical backdrop.

The event also marked my first ‘serious’ ocean race, having only competed in short overnight coastal events prior to signing up and there was certainly a lot to learn! I was fortunate in being offered a position onboard ‘The Goat’; a Sydney 38 One Design that has a proven record in some of the most challenging offshore races in Australia and is arguably one of the most successful yachts in its class. Designed to race under strict one-design rules, the Sydney 38OD delivers close racing with a strong, well established fleet in Australia.

What makes ocean racing so appealing is the race within the race. The general public will always have a fascination in seeing the biggest and most expensive yachts battle it out for line honours glory while the individual boat owners return year-after-year in pursuit of the Overall Classification. The reality of course, is that with so many boats of varying lengths, weights, designs and construction it is virtually impossible to create a mathematical formula that can fairly match yachts with such huge speed differences across all weather conditions. That is part of the allure of ocean racing. In the right conditions at the right time in the right spot nearly anyone can win!

The beauty of strict One Design racing and the reason I was so happy to start my ocean racing career on a Sydney 38OD is that the boats are essentially identical. The class rules are quite strict with every boat built by the same builder so ultimately, it is less of a question of who has the largest cheque book but rather, it’s a battle between the skippers, their crews and the elements. In the end, the first boat across the finish line is declared the winner.

In this year’s race there were 76 yachts vying for the overall prize, the largest fleet in more than a decade, with individual battles raging between the classes including the TP52’s and the Sydney 38’s. The forecast was for a light-wind coastal race coming mainly from behind with plenty of holes to negotiate and a slow march to the finish. What eventuated was somewhat different with a race of two halves. The larger boats enjoyed the best of the breeze, finishing in a day and a half, much earlier than forecast, and enjoyed a light but steady wind for most of the race. The smaller boats, including the Sydney 38’s, had a much more difficult time in the later stages with big fluctuations in the breeze, plenty of holes to get trapped in if you weren’t paying attention, and stages where it felt like we were barely moving. Nevertheless, we still finished nearly a day ahead of predictions and achieved our ultimate goal; a first place in the Sydney 38 One Design division.

As is often the case in ocean racing, conditions generally favour a single type of boat more than others and this held true for this event with TP52’s filling the first seven places in the Overall Classification. In our own battle within the Sydney 38 fleet the lead changed many times. We were rarely separated from our nearest rival by more than a mile throughout the whole 384-mile event resulting in two days and eight hours of little sleep and many sail changes to try and get ahead and keep our slender advantage through to the finish.

In order to achieve success with any challenge, we must evolve and adapt to the changing circumstances around and within us. Adjusting to our environment, acknowledging gains and setbacks but always looking forward to the next step. This event was a challenge with no regrets, but it has really opened my eyes as to how much I still have to learn about the world of keel boat racing.

My next three events are the NSW Youth Match Racing Championship, Airlie Beach Race Week and Hamilton Island Race week. The NSW Youth Match Racing Championship is a two-day, World Sailing Grade 4 event hosted over the first weekend in August and we are back in the Elliott 7’s. My regular skipper, Finn Tapper is away in the U.S. competing on the match racing circuit, so I have been invited to race with the young, talented Hugo Stoner which should be a bit of fun.

After completing the Match Racing, it is back to Queensland moving from one extreme to the other. The next event will take me to the beautiful Whitsundays where I am so fortunate to be able to learn and compete on the TP52 'Zen' at both Airlie Beach Race Week and Hamilton Island Race Week. These boats are considered the ‘Formula One’ of class racing and I cannot wait to get out there and learn as much as I can.

I would like to finish this blog with a special thanks to the whole team on ‘The Goat’, both on and off the water, for making me feel so welcome, teaching me so much and giving me the opportunity to race with them. All I can say is that if you are considering doing an ocean race – get out there and do it – you won’t be disappointed.

It is shaping as a busy month ahead and I can’t wait to tell you all about it in my next blog.

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