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Sailing in the Antipodes: A Right Royal Affair

Antipodes crew lined up at the start 

On October 7 this year, at 1 p.m., just off Sydney Harbour’s Sow and Pigs, Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron Members Geoff Hill and Richard Hudson, along with 16 other crew, began the first bi-annual Sydney to Auckland race. It's a 1250nm race across the Tasman. The race is roughly twice the distance of the iconic Rolex Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Not really a race for the faint-hearted.
It was billed by the race organisers, two of our fellow Royals, the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club based in Pittwater and the Auckland-based Royal Akarana Yacht Club, as “a race of a lifetime. “

Graham Barrett's Yacht 'Painkiller'

Joining Antipodes was fellow Squadron Member Graham Barrett’s Pittwater-based Bavaria 51 Painkiller which finished the race within the very respectable time of nine days.

He commented before the race, “the boat itself is ready, it’s just a matter of taking cruising gear off and putting the racing gear on. We have plenty of sails, a Code Zero, asymmetrics, so depending on the wind, if it’s down a bit we can certainly power it up.”

After the race, Barrett said, “Painkiller has given us a very comfortable ride”.

Whilst small compared to the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean, the Tasman Sea has a notorious record of heavy weather and yachts getting into difficulties. It can be, as one person described it, “like sailing over square waves”. The challenging conditions are largely due to the Pacific Ocean current meeting the Southern Ocean current. As a result, the waves and swell can be somewhat unpredictable.

Richard Hudson at the Helm with Geoff Hill

My fellow Squadron Member Richard Hudson, the tactician on Antipodes for many years during its Asian sailing program, whetted my interest in the race although we were fully aware of both the potential dangers and the need for an experienced crew. Planning for the race by the organisers needed to be, and was, meticulous.


And our race weapon? The west coast USA built 72 feet Santa Cruz ocean racer, Antipodes. She is a Bill Lee-designed Santa Cruz 72 built in 1997 with the motto “Fast is Fun“. She has been raced extensively in Asia and Australia since she was acquired in 2011. She has sailed over 100,000 nautical miles. A big boat, she is rated under the IRC rule for 22 crew. We usually race with a crew of 14-16, although in this race, we took 18, divided into two watches.

We were fortunate to have built up a good nucleus of experienced Sydney sailors during our recent winter races. Perhaps just as importantly, we also retained the services of Alan (aka Guilty) Tillyer, Antipodes' long-standing Sailing Master, as well as our three long-time Filipino crew who did a great job in preparing the boat.

Smooth sailing? Not quite
Notwithstanding our preparations, we did have our issues.

Ironically our major competition was from Frantic, my old TP 52 then known as Strewth. But this TP52 is possibly better known as the yacht that lost its keel in the middle of the night, in the middle of the 2008 Rolex China Sea Race, 200nm from anywhere. Certainly, Squadron Members then on board, Bruce Gould, Bryan Collis, Stephen Wall and myself remember it well this way.

Antipodes raced with Frantic neck and neck for the second half of the race.

Antipodes, Frantic and Mayfair heading out of the Sydney Heads

Timing, Weather and Communications

October was chosen because the Tasman weather conditions are mainly benign compared to winter storms between June and September. October also allows yachts to compete in the Queensland yachting events in August and September and to be back in Sydney for the start of the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Race.

Importantly, the organisers obtained the services of well-regarded oceanographer Roger (AKA Clouds) Badham whose detailed forecasts and other information were all extremely useful for all participants and more importantly largely accurate!

Above: Projected Routing - Largely Accurate

Race communications were simplified from the sometimes tortuous offshore race communication requirements by doing away with the regular radio skeds and relying instead on satellite phones, Yellow Brick trackers and AIS equipment. Yachts were encouraged to report in daily with news, et cetera.

Antipodes at the Start of the Sydney to Auckland Race

The Race

This race is now the only truly offshore Category One yacht race in Australia. It’s equivalent in length to two Rolex Sydney to Hobart’s which other than the crossing of Bass Strait ( not to be scoffed at) is largely a coastal race.

Sailing through the heads, Antipodes in the lead

Day 1

So we started just inside the Heads of Sydney Harbour at 1 PM on October 7, in a reasonably strong 15-20 knot southerly which hastened our trip to the first mark just outside Barrenjoey at Pittwater. It was then effectively a turn due east heading for the northern tip of New Zealand. Antipodes revelled in the reaching conditions and quickly regained the lead from Frantic and by the end of the first day was 20 miles ahead of our competition

Day 2

Over the next few days, the wind abated somewhat and veered into a southerly – sou'wester averaging between 8 to 15 kn with occasional gusts of 20+. There was also a 2-3 m swell which pushed us along as well.

Day 3

By Day 3, we were over halfway across the Ditch but during the night, we suffered from our second halyard parting. We had to douse our masthead spinnaker, which slowed us down. From here, we could only sail with our small fractional A6 kite - perhaps 1 to 2 kn slower than planned!

We had to wait for daylight for safety reasons before putting our bowman, Damien Armstrong, up the mast after dropping the mainsail.

'Antipodes' reaching under the zero - Dawn (Day 4)

Day 4

With this new challenging set of “reduced “ circumstances, Day 4 was exciting. Not surprisingly Frantic had caught up with us overnight and nearly overtook us. It was effectively match racing for the next 400 miles.

Day 5

We gained some distance on Frantic once we turned south at the Cape Reinga corner, New Zealand’s most northerly point. From there, it was all the way as quickly as we could towards Auckland, surprisingly for a Santa Cruz design which was originally set up as a downwind flyer.

Antipodes Crew - Sydney to Auckland Race

We continued our match racing down the New Zealand east coast, where we proved to be an hour or so faster than Frantic and set the race record for the course. One for the record book as the old girl averaged 10.2 knots.

Surprisingly the heaviest weather for the whole voyage was on our way up Auckland Harbour, where we had gusts of up to 35 kn, mainly on the nose, in reasonably poor overcast conditions.

Crossing the finishing line within sight of the Royal Arkarana Yacht Club was most welcoming.

Antipodes and her crew had a good race with line honours, setting the monohull race record between Sydney and Auckland, and winning the PHS division with an elapsed time of 5 days, 3 hours and 37 minutes. A race record.

Two sail reaching in the Bay of Islands

Well-known Club Member, Sydney Yachtsman Sean Langman, holds the fastest multihull record of 2 days 19 hours 2 minutes, averaging over 18 knots. Set in 2013, this will be a record hard to beat.

Auckland in the distance:  10nm to the finish 

It was a fantastic race… the classical open ocean race. I’ve done trans-Atlantics and trans-Pacific races, and many ocean races in Asia, but this one joins the list of the greats.

Auckland Celebrations - Antipodes Frantic Mayfair Crew 

The Royal clubs have done a great job in getting a new international yacht race on the map between two historically strong sailing nations.

We were fortunate... this year, the Tasman treated us benignly. As with all great ocean races, it will not always be thus in the future.

By Geoff Hill