The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race by Rob Mundle


Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

As the author states, ocean racing involves multiple skills: like combining football, flying and surfing. Add to this the luck of the draw that comes with playing poker and the skill of a chess player who plans a forward strategy, and you have the formula! His book pays homage to the sailors who dare to test these attributes and relates how this race, held on Boxing Day each year, has captured the imagination of millions around the globe.

It began at the end of the World War II in 1945. The annual subscription was one pound ten shillings. Illingworth, one of the famed sailors in that race, had a small yacht that cost six hundred and sixteen pounds. Today the fleet has competitors worth millions each!

Illingworth, one of England’s finest racing yachtsmen, had hurdles to overcome. Those intent on competing had difficulty obtaining basic needs like sails and ropes, because of the shortages inflicted by the War.  Even the start from Sydney was hampered by the shortage of beer, which was deemed an absolute necessity…. Safety requirements were laid down, but no radios were on the yachts.

Nine yachts were in the race that year. Only the Melbourne Cup and Cricket entertained the people for years because of the War, so there was big excitement surrounding the first race.

It was a dream start. An air of adventure clung to it, as the only instruments on board were a compass and sextant.  Today, the navigation cockpit resembles that of a jet liner.  They had salt meat because of the lack of refrigeration – and it needed to last 11 days.

150nm south, the infamous Southerly buster struck with 5 metre waves. One was higher than Rani’s – Illingworth’s yacht – mast, which was 16 metres tall.  Clothing was woefully inadequate and the cabins leaked. One crew, of the Achina, retired as everyone was seasick.

There are wonderfully detailed descriptions of the sailors’ ordeals. Because communications were virtually non-existent, no reliable reports were received until the race neared its end.

 Winston Churchill, a Tasmanian yacht was thought to be in the lead, even when in the Derwent, but the victor was Rani!

Some drama followed and cheating was suspected, but Illingworth had wired the propeller and sealed the engine; so, it was his combined skills and those of his crew that gave him the victory.

Although the great ocean races like the English Fastnet and Rhode Is to Bermuda were well established, it was argued that the Sydney/Hobart being a similar distance (600-700nm) should be an annual event. No other race compared with the possible dangers encountered.

A second was planned for 1946 and competed under improved conditions. There was air cover, weather reports twice a day, and radar supplied by the RAAF.  However, nature threw everything at them: “flat calms and light winds to punishing gales and breaking seas the size no sailor wished to see”.

Eight of the 19 failed to finish but a heroic sailor emerged. Magnus Halvorsen, who built his vessel in the family shed, became a legend, although he did not get the prize of 100 pounds.

The Tattersall Cup, superbly worked in silver, and featuring a grapevine, mermaids and sea horses, became the trophy.

Each year, interest grew. Attitudes became more serious, yachts sleeker – to replace the bulky, solid cruising type.

Interesting details emerge. Food during the 50’s was one hot meal a day supplemented by eggs, tomatoes, biscuits and fruit. Celery was popular. It was nourishing and easy to eat.  Their dishes were cake tins to avoid spills.

So thorough is this book that sailors would be enthralled. The Race is one of the most exciting sporting events in the world, and Rob Mundle pays respect to this. The research is meticulous, producing a treasure trove of facts. I am one of the many who are thrilled by the Harbour spectacle – but the book would be appreciated more by those closely connected to the race or who have a passion for sailing.  He salutes many fine men who, not only are good sailors, but share their love of sailing by encouraging promising young people to enter the sport. Syd Fischer, skipper of Ragamuffin, is one of these.

Tragedy struck in 1998.  The ultimate storm wreaked havoc which hit headlines around the world. The duel between the weather and man-made yachts became a maritime disaster.

On the second day, cyclonic weather struck. Some retired at this stage, dreading what lay ahead. Wind gusts hit 92 knots.  Australia’s largest ever peacetime rescue ensued. Although they searched for 48 hours, six men perished, 55 were winched to safety, and only 44 craft of the 115 who started reached Hobart.

At one stage a gigantic wave almost swamped the chopper attempting to winch a man to safety…

Many tales emerge from survivors of that horror race. According to Lachlan Murdoch, it was three times more terrible than the worst in a disaster movie.

In the current century, yacht design has flourished.  Development of the Super Maxis has given speed and safer conditions to competitors. Men and women from around the world now compete. “Wild Oats” as well as “Brindabella” are household names. Long gone are the laid-back ways of those early post-war races.

Rob Mundle’s book concludes with the account of “Katwinchar”, a tiny yacht that epitomises the spirit of this great race. Get hold of the book- it’s worth it just for that….

As with all Mundle’s work, biographies on Bligh, Cook, and Flinders, it is beautifully written and contains details that are interesting and occasionally humorous.  As a celebration of the great race that is the Sydney to Hobart that has endured and constantly improved over 75 years, it is highly recommended.

The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race


Rob Mundle

Harper Collins Australia    

ISBN 978-0-7333-3982-0

410pp; Hardcover $49.99

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