The 78th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will go down in history as a relentlessly demanding test of determination, as well as physical and mental resilience.
The record will highlight a tooth and nail fight to the finish for Line Honours, and a Tasmanian boat joining the select few to have achieved two overall wins in the event’s near eight decades. Organised by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia in conjunction with the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, Rolex has partnered the iconic offshore challenge since 2002.
For both the overall winner, Philip Turner’s 66 ft (20-metre) Alive, and the 100 ft (30.5 m) line honours victor, Christian Beck’s LawConnect, tactical skill and awareness was a major factor alongside sheer endurance. This was especially so in the River Derwent, on the final approach to Hobart, where the fates of many fatigued crews were finally decided. The unwavering tenacity of offshore sailors and their capacity to summon their deepest reserves all the way to the finish, has been a common theme throughout Rolex’s near 70-year relationship with yachting.
A fleet of 103 yachts had signed up for the renowned 628-nautical mile undertaking, ranging from fully professional maxi racers to more Corinthian crews, and including some 18 two-handed boats. Departing Sydney Harbour on 26 December under mainly sunny skies and accompanied by the usual throng of enthusiastic onlookers, an uncertain and unsettled weather outlook ramped up the already high stakes of this notorious course. The presence of low pressure over the New South Wales coast and the ominous threat of troughs was fair warning of what was to follow. Rapidly developing thunderstorms, lightning, intense rain squalls and winds erratic in strength and direction enveloped the fleet during the first 24 hours of racing. A south westerly then moved in, leaving the bulk of the yachts heading across Bass Strait and down the coast of Tasmania in upwind conditions that would turn very heavy, with a total of 16 crews forced to retire over the course of the race.
Although four yachts were initially tipped as contenders, the battle to be first across the line in Hobart came down to a two-horse race between 100-footers LawConnect and Andoo Comanche, with LawConnect just managing to steal ahead in the final nerve-wracking seconds, after almost two full days of stalking their opponents.
To win line honours in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race is a dream come true, especially against Comanche because it’s such a good boat, and in a circumstance where the lead changed so much. It was an incredibly exciting experience all around.”
LawConnect’s triumph was in fact clinched by the narrowest of margins, with the two boats just 51 seconds apart on the finish line. The second closest finish in the race’s history.
The drama had commenced early for the Juan Kouyoumdjian design, as Beck explained:
We had a great start and were first at the first mark. But when we went to furl our big masthead zero, the furling line broke and so we couldn’t wrap up this massive sail. And we’re coming straight towards the zone where all the spectator boats were and we couldn’t tack…”
The 21-strong crew, which included four Corinthian sailors, managed to avert disaster and recovered quickly to set up a veritable match race with the defending line honours champion Andoo Comanche.
Entering the Derwent three miles behind Comanche, Beck looked set to add to his tally of three second-place finishes and perennial bridesmaid status. However the river is no place for the faint of heart and often rewards those that hold their nerve and take their chances.
While Beck feared the race was lost, his afterguard of Tony Mutter and Chris Nicholson – two of the southern hemisphere’s finest and most experienced ocean racing sailors – had other ideas. Working with the equally talented American navigator, Chris Lewis, they reeled in Comanche, setting up an enthralling and memorable finish as the two colossi traded tacks, gybes and ultimately the lead.
Beck was quick to admit that the win was very much down to the steely resolve of his capable crewmates, whose belief and motivation was inspirational for the rest of the crew:
“The determination was from Tony Mutter and Chris Nicholson, they never give up no matter how bad it gets. They are the ones that got us over the line.”
Overall winner Alive previously claimed the Tattersall Cup in 2018, and had come tantalising close in 2019. In a serendipitous turn of events, their success this year marks the 75th anniversary of the first Tasmanian boat to secure two wins in the Rolex Sydney Hobart. George Gibson’s Westward famously achieved consecutive victories in 1947 and 1948. Long-time skipper, Duncan Hine, was also part of the winning 2018 crew.
Tasmanian boats have a long history in the Rolex Sydney Hobart, and to be one of those Tasmanian boats to have won, and now won it twice, is phenomenal.”
Preparation and strategy, as well as more than a pinch of experience and local knowledge, were key to this victory, as the crew faced some of the most unpredictable conditions seen in recent years. Hine was in no doubt as to the value of his accomplished 13-strong crew, whose combined curriculums covered more than 100 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race participations.
“Starting with a collection of people who have memories over the 10 or 15 races they’ve done, our navigator Adrienne Cahalan was on her 31st, you’ve got a lot of stored knowledge. Everyone in this race, all the guys could not have done any more, you didn’t even have to ask, everyone was on it.”
Brave decisions can often be race defining moments, and while the majority of her competition in the contest for the Tattersall Cup hugged the coastline as they headed south, Alive was one of a handful that dared to strike out east in an effort to find more pressure.
Gaining an all-important advantage over the main body, Alive swept towards the finish hard on the tail of the slightly bigger URM Group, with whom she had been sparring for two days. History has proved time and again that anything can happen on the Derwent,and it was arguably a close relationship with the fickle river that swung it for Alive, which represents the Derwent Sailing Squadron, by just 20 minutes on corrected time.
“In the end the Derwent is kind to people that know it, a little home advantage,” explained Hine, who also has a fair idea of the human qualities the race calls for: “Endurance, focus, and then endurance again.”
Like Cahalan, and Beck, and the hosts of sailors who return to complete this tour-de-force year after year despite the adversity and punishing roster, it seems the pain is already a distant memory and Hine is looking to future editions of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.
“It’s a tough race and you can’t even really dream you could win it twice, so now I’m starting to think maybe we’ve got a third in us.” he admitted with a smile.
Former Australian yachtswoman of the year Adrienne Cahalan, navigator on Alive and now a three-time overall winner, arriving tired, cold and wet into Hobart’s Constitution Dock, did not underestimate the ingredients required for success.
“A lot has got to come together to win this race, that’s why it is so hard. The weather patterns have to be right, your equipment, your team. You get such a broad range of conditions, you have to know how hard to push or not push, and we pushed hard in this race through rough conditions.”
Having just beaten more than 100 other competitors to raise the coveted Tattersall Cup, Cahalan was clear on what an immense achievement this was.
“The Tattersall Cup is very hard to win. It took me 15 years to win it the first time. It’s a really hard race because so much has to come together. So when you do win it, it does take a lot. It’s something that everybody wants to do, but owners have spent years and years and never got over the line.”
Internationally renowned as one of the most arduous rites of passage in ocean sailing, a historic offshore challenge that has captivated professional and Corinthian sailors alike since 1945, the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race represents a cornerstone of Rolex’s association with world-class yachting endeavours. On a course so challenging that finishing is considered an achievement in itself, the pursuit of excellence, precision, and team spirit shine through, echoing the Swiss watchmaker’s enduring ethos.