Gale pummels another Sydney-Hobart fleet

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Rough conditions force 57 yachts to retire from the 60th annual race

Rough conditions force 57 yachts to retire from the 60th annual race

Australia’s notorious Bass Strait has thrashed another Sydney Hobart Yacht Race fleet, forcing half of the 116 entries to retire and capsizing last year’s winner, 98-foot Skandia, after it went airborne off a rogue wave in a 40-knot gale and lost its keel.

“We are lucky to get out of this alive and sail another yacht race,” says Australian Grant Wharington, Skandia’s 40-year-old owner and skipper.

The first 23 hours of the 628-mile race from Sydney Harbor down the New South Wales coast to Hobart, Tasmania, was an exciting downwind sleigh ride, but as predicted at the prerace briefing the wind clocked southwesterly. As the fleet approached Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania, the wind turned with gale-force intensity, transforming the Strait into a treacherous funnel of wind and waves. No skipper could forget the 1998 race, when six sailors died and 50 were rescued in the stormy Strait. This time, many sailed for safe harbor at Twofold Bay in Eden on the New South Wales coast to sit out the 2-1/2-day gale; 57 of them retired from the race.

Prerace favorites Skandia, first to finish the 2003 Sydney Hobart, and Kiwi Stewart Thwaites’ Konica Minolta, another 98-footer, which finished 14 minutes behind Skandia in 2003, were battling it out for the lead again when Skandia’s keel came loose in eastern Bass Strait.

Hours earlier the 15-month-old super maxi — one of Australia’s biggest, most sophisticated racers — had stopped dead in the water. “Our boat speed went from 12 knots to zero instantaneously,” Wharington writes in ane-mail account of Skandia’s capsize. “We had hit something, probably either a sunfish or a shark. We stopped so quickly that we even got a call on the radio from Konica — who was behind us and had seen what had happened — as they sped past.”

Wharington, a Victoria, Australia, developer, says the collision had caused no obvious damage, so Skandia returned to the fray, its crew intent on retaking the lead. Slogging upwind into 15-foot seas and winds peaking at 40 knots, the super maxi was making good time against Konica, so Wharington made the “conservative” decision to tack inshore. “Not the quickest way to Hobart but the safest,” he says.

At about 1:45 a.m. Dec. 28 — 36 hours into the race — Skandia was on a port tack when it launched off a towering wave. Wharington isn’t sure how big it was. “Some of our crew flew out of their bunks with the force of the fall, and we heard the loud and disturbing crack of carbon fiber and metal breaking, coming from the keel area,” he writes. “From the sound alone it was immediately clear that our keel had been damaged severely and that our race was over.”

He turned the boat around and started running with the wind and seas while his crew assessed the damage. They found that two hydraulic rams that control the canting keel had buckled and snapped, jamming the 14-ton bulb to starboard and embedding the top of the keel in the port bulkhead. “It did not look good, and I was convinced that the keel would eventually come loose and we would capsize,” he says.

At 1:55 he issued a “pan-pan” on the radio, alerting anyone listening that Skandia was in trouble and to please stand by. At 2:25 he officially requested assistance from the police launch Van Diemen on station on the northern tip of Tasmania. They gave an ETA of 9:15, still seven hours away. Wharington radioed the race committee every 30 minutes after that, and though he wanted to make his way northwest to Lady Barren harbor on the island of Flinders 70 miles away, the best course he could manage with the broken keel and in the conditions was north-northeasterly, 70 degrees from where he wanted to go. “We were safe for the moment but heading for Fiji,” he writes. “Not good.”

The crew had managed to secure the keel, but at about 7:30 it began to wobble again in its housing and tear into the hull. “I am sure that the noise of that cracking carbon fiber will live with us all for a very long time,” says Wharington. A half-hour later, it began to swing violently. “This powerful pendulum that had once given Skandia her awesome power through the water was now tearing the boat to pieces. We immediately upgraded our pan-pan to a mayday and deployed the first life raft containing half of our crew of 16.”

By this time two helicopters were circling overhead, and the private yacht Yendys was close by and ready to assist, if necessary.

A half-hour later, Wharington and the rest of his crew climbed into a second life raft. Monday morning quarterbacks second-guessed him and asked why he had broken the “golden rule”: Never abandon ship until you have to step “up” into your life raft. Wharington said he was worried the boat would capsize and tangle his crew in its rigging. “Probably one of the most difficult things I have had to do is leave the yacht,” he says. “[It was] also nerve-racking, since I believed that the keel would dislodge itself at some point — a question of when, not if,” he writes.

Later that afternoon, he returned to Skandia, flying over it in a plane. “Luckily it didn’t take long before we spotted her, but it was heartbreaking to see that the keel was gone and she was upside down,” Wharington says. A tug towed her into Lady Barren.

Four hours after Skandia’s pan-pan, Konica Minolta withdrew from the race, also with keel damage. “Just before 6 a.m. we barreled off the top of a ‘gi-normous’ wave and crashed down the other side,” says owner Thwaites in an interview posted on the race Web site (rolexsydneyhobart.com). He says the wave towered 30 feet, with no back. “I was below deck when it happened,” he reports. “I heard the wave, then I heard the foam crushing. … This wave was twice as big as any others we’d seen during this race.”

Konica Minolta helmsman and America’s Cup sailor Gavin Brady told reporters at the Rolex Media Center in Hobart there was that “lonely five seconds” while they waited to fall. “The bow felt like it was facing the sky and a good proportion of the keel was out of the water,” says Brady.

When the 27-ton yacht smashed down into the bottom of the trough, “we heard a crack but we were not sure what it was,” Thwaites says.

A more conservative design than Skandia, Konica Minolta has a fixed keel and water ballast. The crew found the cabin top creased between the mast and keel sleeve, and the keel was damaged where it attaches to the hull. They braced the damaged area, but with the boat riding into big swells and the back and forth motion bending the hull, Thwaites decided if they kept sailing the keel could fall off or the hull could literally fold, he said at a Media Center press conference.

“It was a hard decision,” he says. “We agonized over it, but the consensus was that it was dangerous [to keep going].” Continuing under power, Konica Minolta put in at Binnalong Bay in Tasmania.

Thwaites describes the conditions in the Bass Strait as similar to those in his first Sydney-Hobart, in 2000. “This race was like a wrap-up of the last four,” he says. “Waterspouts, whales, sunfish, 2-inch-deep hail on the deck and sunny skies, and fast downwind sailing, all in one race.” He says Konica Minolta encountered two waterspouts in the Strait.

Yet conditions were far less menacing than those in 1998, when 40-foot seas and 70-knot winds in the Bass Strait left six boats sunk or abandoned, and just 44 of 115 boats completing the course.

Nicorette, a new 90-foot super maxi owned and skippered by Finn Ludde Ingvall, took line honors, finishing the 60th anniversary race in 2 days, 16 hours, 44 seconds — more than 21 hours slower than Nokia’s record of 1 day, 19 hours, 48 minutes, 2 seconds set in 1999. “When we crossed Bass Strait, the plan was that if it got worse we would head for the shore,” Ingvall said at the Media Center in Hobart. “So we headed for the shore, and from then onwards it was not easy, but it got easier.” Proceeding cautiously, he raced at times with very little sail and tacked in and out of the Tasmanian coast, with sometimes just 3 feet of water under the swing keel.

Nick Lykiardopulo’s Aera, a 55-foot Jason Ker design skippered by British around-the-world sailor Jez Fanstone, won the race overall on corrected time. They opted to race offshore, where big winds and waves pushed them farther offshore — 150 miles eventually — until the wind clocked and gave them a straight shot at Hobart. “We had been trying to get closer inshore, but the wind and wave conditions had kept pushing us out to sea up to that point,” Fanstone says.

No crew injuries were reported on the disabled super maxis. However, the Sydney 38 Hidden Agenda put into Eden with two injured crewmembers. Both were treated at a hospital, one for a dislocated shoulder, the other for a back injury. The Tasmanian yacht Quality Equipment also put in at Eden with an injured crewmember, but details were unavailable. Just two yachts were dismasted — Ragamuffin and Dream Venture — and except for the police boat sent to rescue Skandia’s crew and assistance rendered to boats with injured crewmembers, none of the retired yachts had to call for help to reach port, according to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the race organizer.

Wharington had been using Skandia as a training platform for his Volvo Ocean Race campaign, Premier Challenge. Australian-designed and -built, Skandia broke new ground in yacht racing. It was the biggest Aussie entry in the Sydney Hobart. Its canting keel, two-spreader 120-foot carbon-fiber mast, retractable canard (a fin forward of the keel that improves upwind performance), and bowsprit designed for deploying large spinnakers without a spinnaker pole made it an innovative design.

The $4 million yacht also was a successful racer, winning 30 races after its 2003 Sydney-Hobart success. Wharington says an initial damage assessment found Skandia’s keel gone, the mast broken into four pieces, sails in shreds, the interior gutted, and hull holed. “The good news is that the hull looks structurally intact,” he says. “And yes, there is more good news. We are all alive, our team is stronger for this experience, and I have no doubt we will live to sail another day.”

Skandia was uninsured, the $700,000 premium being prohibitive. Wharington says he won’t rebuild the raceboat for the 2005 Sydney Hobart because his Volvo Ocean 70 launches in June, and he plans to be racing around the world in the Volvo next December. But he says he will rebuild Skandia and wants to race it in the 2006 Sydney Hobart.

The new Skandia likely will carry another canting keel. “[Skandia’s] keel rams bent and sheared off,” Wharington says. “The reason why is yet to be determined. I still have absolute confidence in the technology. We believe [the problem was] a specific product failure. At this level of racing we are like Formula One racers driving around the track. We are always testing the latest technology and constantly learning.”

After another tough Sydney Hobart, Konica’s Thwaites was beat up but unbowed by the Dec. 26 Boxing Day classic. “Every year I say it’s my last time,” he says. But yes, he, too, “will probably be back.”