Over the past three-quarters of a century, the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race has developed a rich heritage and a revered status as one of the world’s toughest ocean racing contests.
Organized by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) in conjunction with the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, the elite contest this year celebrates its 75th edition, a notable milestone that has attracted 170 yachts.
Rolex’s partnership with the race began in 2002 as part of the company’s sixdecade-long involvement in yachting. The event encapsulates the continuous quest for excellence and a willingness to push the boundaries of human endeavour and achievement that is enshrined in the Rolex philosophy and which governs all of the brand’s activities. Offshore sailing has been at the heart of this enduring support since the 1960s when pioneering yachtsmen, such as Sir Francis Chichester, relied on Rolex watches during their voyages around the globe.
At 628 nautical miles in length, the course is a rigorous examination of courage, skill and stamina. Like Rolex, it has been defined throughout its history by pioneering feats and a spirit of adventure.
The size of fleet for this year’s race – the largest participation since the 50th edition in 1994 – demonstrates the continuing popularity for racing out of sight of land, in circumstances where self-reliance and determination are as crucial as sailing prowess. Over the years, the challenge has evolved but not changed fundamentally. The equipment and technology available today are far more advanced than that at the disposal of the nine original participants in 1945. For the mostly Corinthian crews, however, the level of commitment and pursuit of excellence remains the same.
At the front of the fleet will be five 30.5 metre (100 foot) maxis, competing for the glory of being first to finish: the Oatley family’s reigning line-honours champion and two-time overall winner, Wild Oats XI; Jim Cooney and Samantha Grant’s race record holder Comanche; Peter Harburg’s Black Jack; Christian Beck’s InfoTrack; and, Seng Huang Lee’s SHK Scallywag. The crews are finely tuned and supremely talented. As racing machines, maxi yachts are highly engineered, pushing the boundaries in materials, design and technology. They demand experience and instinctive understanding to maximize performance and avoid mishap.
In the race for overall victory, the Tattersall Cup and a place in sporting history, there are many capable yachts among this year’s gathering. Ten former winners will compete, including last year’s victor, Alive, owned by Philip Turner and skippered by Duncan Hine. International entries represent China, France, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
When Rolex Testimonee Sir Ben Ainslie, a five-time Olympic medallist and four-time Rolex World Sailor of the Year, participated in the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, it was his first ever offshore race. He readily admits he was fortunate to be on a maxi yacht, benefitting from the knowledge of more experienced ocean-racers.
“This is a sport for life and there are always opportunities to help the younger generations come through,” says Ainslie. “I’d always wanted to get into offshore racing after hearing the stories of my dad, racing around the world. When I went offshore at the Rolex Sydney Hobart, I was lucky to be racing on a 100-foot maxi. It was a real eye-opener and the experience has given me an appreciation of the seamanship and sportsmanship inherent in these races, especially within the Corinthian boats taking two or three times as long as the maxis.”
The Rolex Sydney Hobart has several distinct features: the traditional start time of 13.00 Australian Eastern Daylight Time on 26 December; the instantly recognizable departure point of Sydney Harbour; and, a course that touches Bass Strait, a tough, at times wild stretch of open water, and then finishes in Hobart, Australia’s southernmost city. With a route that inspires a sense of intrepid adventure, it is a race built firmly on the pioneering spirit of its founders.
The CYCA was established by a handful of adventurous cruising yachtsmen whose sailing ambitions lay beyond Sydney Harbour. The club’s destiny was indelibly altered in 1945 when British Navy Captain John Illingworth, a renowned offshore sailor, was asked to speak to members. During the evening, Illingworth was invited to take part in a Christmas cruise to Hobart. “I will, if you make a race of it,” he replied. The eager response was typical of the bold spirit of the CYCA membership and, in this defining moment, the legend was born.
Perpetuating knowledge is another fundamental aspect of the Rolex philosophy and, over the past 75 years, there are numerous examples of veteran race participants passing on wisdom and skill to younger, less experienced sailors within their crew. Handing down the traditions, exposing newcomers to the spirit and the camaraderie inherent in offshore sailing is an essential part of protecting the legacy of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race and inspiring future generations to take part.