It defies description," said Club Secretary Mervyn Davey as he took a swig from his second gin and bitters of the morning and watched the sailors bustling back and forth along the docks of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia. "There are just no words to describe this race."
He was wrong, of course. There are plenty of words to describe the horrendous odyssey that each year carries otherwise sensible seafaring men south from Sydney Harbor 640 miles across the Tasman Sea to Hobart on the island of Tasmania, but most of the words are unprintable—even in Australia. If whales don't stave in your bottom on the way to Hobart, then sharks are likely to chew off your rudder. If the calms don't drive you bongers, then the gales will blow you inside out, for the Sydney-Hobart serves as a geography lesson as well as an endurance contest. It carries its contestants south out of the gentle trade winds into the fabled Roaring Forties, where the gales blow cold from the Antarctic and the giant albatross wheels and soars from trough to trough.
In the 24 years since its inauguration, this race under the Southern Cross has come to be considered a major classic by sailors all over the world, and to the people of Sydney and Hobart it ranks as a spectator sport second to none. Thanks to the location of the sponsoring yacht club right in the heart of Sydney Harbor, the start of the race alone draws a crowd numbering upward of 100,000.
By 9 a.m. on Boxing Day (Dec. 26), enthusiasts already had begun to throng the famous Heads, which serve Sydney as the Golden Gate serves San Francisco. Sunlight flickered from car windshields on every promontory, and what seemed at first to those of us in the fleet to be a kind of speckled patina on the countryside turned out to be thousands and thousands of people in gay shirts and dresses.
Beneath them on the water milled a spectator fleet of boats to be counted by the hundreds. Little outboards zipped in and out among sleek yachts and flying hydrofoils. Ferryboats were awash with fans eager to place bets with anyone who would book them, and tugboats bristled with TV cameras and newsmen.
For days before the race began, the newspapers had carried story after story on the front pages, along with news of the Apollo moon shot. Even the Davis Cup was relegated to a second spot. And so, by the time the fleet of 65 racers (including 16 foreign boats) was assembled for the start, most of the boats present were well known to the fans. However, one boat, the sloop Matuku from New Zealand, was conspicuous by its absence. Sailing down from Auckland, Matuku suddenly found herself in the midst of a pod of whales. One of them laid its tail across her stern with such a whack that it ripped the boat wide open, leaving Matuku's crewmen to fend for themselves in an ill-equipped life raft for five days. We were assured that on the race itself whales would be as common as gales.
It was gales that overtook another of the entries en route to Sydney: the huge American ketch Ondine. Bound southward from Germany around Cape Horn to Sydney where several crewmen—myself among them—were scheduled to join her, Shipowner Huey Long's 73-foot racer (SI, Dec. 2) ran into a fierce blow and snapped off her mainmast in the Indian Ocean some 5,000 miles west of Sydney. The Australian press had several field days speculating on 1) whether Long's skipper, Sven Joffs, would get her to Sydney in time for the race, and 2) whether Long himself, whose former Ondine finished first in record time in the '62 race, could get a new mast shipped out and stepped soon enough to let her compete.
Any intelligent betting man would have given odds against either proposition, but, operating from command posts some 10,000 miles apart, Long and Joffs went to work. From his office in New York, Long got in touch with shipbuilders in Germany and ordered a new mast built to the specifications of the old one and shipped by air to Sydney (cost: approximately $40,000). Meanwhile, Joffs, with only enough fuel to drive his auxiliary diesel a fifth of the distance to Australia, set up a jury rig on what was left of the old mast and sailed his vessel onward to Albany, on the southwest coast, pausing there for 24 hours to rest and refuel before motoring on to Sydney, where he arrived five days before the race was to start.
Next day the new mast arrived. There followed a period of near pandemonium as crewmen and ship workers prepared to set it in place, under the direction of Australian crewman Bill Psaltis.
While all this was going on, Long himself was in San Francisco, furiously waiting out 24 frustrating hours of idleness resulting from a missed plane connection. Characteristically, Huey made it just on time, along with his 12-year-old son Russell, the youngest crewman ever to sail the Sydney-Hobart. At 8 a.m. on the morning of the race the two Longs joined the rest of our polyglot crew of Germans, Australians, Americans, English, Canadians, and Japanese aboard the as-yet-untuned ketch and set out for the starting line. "We'll tune while they're adjusting the compass," said Huey, referring to the careful balancing of tensions on the standing rig that is vital to any racing sailboat and generally occupies days.