Hamilton Island Race Week is one of the most popular yachting events in the Australian calendar and this year's event proved no exception. The second-largest fleet in it's 36-year history saw nearly 2,000 competitors compete in 234 yachts on waters at the edge of the Great Barrier Reef; set amongst Queensland's 74 Whitsunday Islands. We were greeted with glorious weather, dazzling waters, brilliant beaches and an atmosphere of fine food, live bands, and a host of on-shore activities with a carnival-like atmosphere - enjoyed by crews, family and friends.
Out on the water, we experienced a mixture of long and short around-the-island courses with a start list representing every Australian state. International entries saw boats from New Zealand, Hong Kong and the USA. The largest boat in the fleet was the 24m Bumblebee IV while the smallest yacht was a 6.4m trailable built in the 1970's. Crews ranged in size and experience from the highly polished professionals such as Marcus Blackmore's TP52 Hooligan right along side the family cruisers and trailables who had all come out just to be part of the fun.
The first two days mirrored my experience at Airlie Beach Race Week where we were greeted with light trade winds and winter sunshine. Racing was held over round-the-island courses in patchy sou'east breezes that caught a few boats out - including ourselves - creating opportunities to break away from those unlucky enough to get caught in a wind shadow or up against an unfavorable tide. We struggled a fair bit on Day One, finishing with a disappointing 5th, but made up for it with our best result and only win of the regatta on Day Two.
Day Three delivered on its promise for some serious heavy air racing with Southeast winds recorded up to 37 knots during the morning. The race committee decided to postpone and raised the AP flag with lighter winds forecast in the afternoon. Finally, after a decision to abandon the scheduled long distance races due to the late start, the fleet were all sent northward on a variety of courses. Surprisingly, given the initial forecast, the breeze dropped down to 15 knots by late afternoon leaving several yachts under-powered for the second half. In our IRC Division 1, we enjoyed some fantastic hard-running downwind, launching of waves and powering along in the choppy seas. I loved every minute of it even though we finished behind Hooligan who seemed to love it even more!
Wednesday saw a rest day on the water with many crews taking advantage of the many wonderful opportunities put on by our hosts. Crews with families spent the day at the beach, others enjoyed live music and fine food at several bars and restaurants while some just took a well-earned rest soaking up the rays by the pool. Unfortunately, when you race on a high performance craft like a TP52 a day-off just means more time for boat preparation and maintenance. I did enjoy a late start and a few hours to myself in the afternoon but as the new kid on the block there is just so much to learn and the more time I spend on these boats the better I hope to be in the future.
On Thursday, after some morning fun and frivolity with crews dressing up as part of the Prix d'Elegance - basically a chance for adults to play dress up - we got back to the serious business of racing. Greeted by a heavy 30 knot south-easterly in the morning as we left the dock, easing winds and lumpy seas made for tricky conditions later in the day with Hooligan and Wild Oats X, skippered by Mark Richards, swapping first and second places over the two races held.
Day Five saw Hooligan secure top spot with a day of racing left after another impressive win by this very professional outfit. Wind over tide played havoc for many boats and we were no exception, breaking our vang and being forced to retire from the race. We managed to jury-rig a repair but it didn't hold so we decided that it would be better to return to shore and repair the vang properly rather than risk further damage or injury. Fortunately, like several of the more professional teams, our owner Gordon Ketelbey had a trailer on the island with spare parts so after a bit of carbon work we managed to get it fixed overnight.
Day Six saw a run northwards to the Molle Islands group and back in 20 knot ESE winds. The final day was a bit anticlimactic despite the party atmosphere given that Hooligan had already been declared the winner a day earlier. Marcus Blackmore's boat has now won the event five times and it is testament to how well prepared the boat is, the skill of the crew and the professionalism of their program. Finishing in second was Wild Oats X, the little sister to the legendary super-maxi back home in Sydney preparing for another line honours tilt in the Hobart race.
We finished in third place. A little disappointing because you always want to win but satisfying on another level because amongst the professionalism of many of the teams, Zen is still very much crewed by part-time sailors. Despite their fierce competitiveness, most participate mainly for the love of the sport, which is true for many yachties, and they still return back to their 'day jobs' when it is all over.
I would like to finish my northern adventure by thanking Gordon and the whole team on Zen for teaching me so much, looking after me and providing a glimpse into what makes keel boat racing so special. I can certainly say that while I love my foiling, skiff and match racing, this keel boat thing is certainly growing on me!
Back to Sydney for me and back to work to relieve my hard-working boss Jason who so generously allows me to compete in these amazing regattas. I've loved every minute of it and can't wait to come back next year.