Are There Lessons From the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race for Sea Kayakers [37]

By Dave Winkworth

Well, I suppose we all know in some detail what happened in this race. Six sailors lost their lives, many more lives will be changed forever, many participants were injured – some seriously and most of the sailors will now view life on the sea in a different light.

Sitting through the numerous TV reports which included interviews with rescued sailors descibing terrifying conditions at sea, I seemed to come to the view that some of these sailors were under an illusion that this couldn’t possibly have happened to them between Sydney and Hobart. But it did. Some of them even declared an end to their seagoing days.

So, was what I was hearing right? Did they really believe that Bass Strait and the South Pacific Ocean couldn’t serve up huge breaking waves and 70 knot winds in December?

Well, the ocean blasted the fleet right between the eyes – there’s no doubt about that, and I’ll wager that conditions worse than those experienced by the race yachts have occurred in that very area in Decembers past.

Let’s have a look at a few aspects of the race and see if there are any lessons in there for sea kayakers.

The race started in idyllic sailing conditions – blue skies, lots of colour, spectator boats everywhere, a celebrity to fire the starting gun and a fresh nor’easter to get the maxi’s going for the record with a spinnaker run down the coast.

Expert commentators spoke of the yachts enjoying the nor’easter until late on Boxing Day night when a southerly change was predicted to hit the fleet.

Southerly change my arse! This was much more serious than that! It appeared to me the escape the attention of the commentators. I wonder did it escape the close scrutiny of all the skippers?

At precisely 2.14pm on Boxing Day, the Bureau of Meteorology issued a priority STORM WARNING for coastal waters off the far south coast. This was one hour and fourteen minutes after the race started. I’m certain I didn’t hear of any withdrawals at that time, or reports of yachts changing course to hug the coastline as far as Gabo Island.

Well, what exactly is a storm warning? Those paddlers who came on the Eucumbene Paddle last year felt a storm-force wind. Let’s have a look at the gradings…

  • Strong Wind Warning: 25 to 33 knots
  • Gale Warning: 34 to 47 knots (Gale Warning usually calls the Weather Bureau on April Fool’s Day each year.)
  • Storm Warning : 48 to 63 knots
  • Hurricane Warning: Over 63 knots

Now, in forecasts, wind speed is the average over a 10 minute period and gusts can be up to 40% stronger than the given speed. My calculator tells me that the predicted wind therefore, including gusts was of the order of 69 knots to 88 knots! That’s one hell of a southerly change! Do you know there were sailors who accused the Weather Bureau of not issuing the right information.! To my mind, you can’t get much clearer than that.

Just as the Sea Kayak Club puts the onus of “whether or not to paddle” onto the individual kayaker, so the Cruising Yacht Club lets skippers make the decision to race or withdraw. I should mention here that the Sea Kayak Club gives the Paddle Leader the right to refuse participation by a paddler for various reasons.

I’m told that another factor in the maelstrom was wind against current. I guess sea kayakers would call it wind against tide, as we deal mainly with inshore conditions. Out on the ocean, sailors go for the longshore ocean currents to get that extra speed. During our summer it races down the coast at up to 5 knots or so along the edge of the continental shelf and skippers quite naturally try to sit their yachts right on it for a free ride. Fair enough, but 70 knots of wind from the other direction must surely create some huge seas. Sea kayakers see this effect in the surf, on barred and un-barred river entrances (2 men died last year on Narooma Bar in just these circumstances) and often off prominent headlands.

Some of the yachts escaped the worst of the storm but many were caught smack in the middle of it. Lots were damaged and turned to seek shelter in Eden. At this time, most of the yachts were south and well wide of Gabo Is, so in turning they were in effect copping the seas and wind on the beam. I’m told that it was after turning north west to seek shelter that many were rolled over and dismasted. They were damaged AFTER withdrawing from the race!

Of the boats that made it to Hobart, one sailed before the storm (downwind) with bare poles towards New Zealand until conditions improved (this boat was a small 35 footer) and another kept it’s bow into the seas (heading south west into Bass Strait) until it could safely turn for Hobart. I must say, I find these different strategies for dealing with the conditions intriguing.

Well, can sea kayakers learn from these experiences?

To the weather first of all. If it’s a rotten forecast, heed it. Steve Symonds from the Bureau of Meteorology who was our guest speaker at the AGM says

“If it’s a bad forecast, expect the worst!”

On the decision to paddle or not to paddle, be conservative. If you think you may get into difficulties you probably will. There is not always another paddler nearby willing or able to help you.

Be very suspicious of wind against tide conditions. They can be very treacherous for all boats. Standing waves can result and you wont go anywhere – you’ll stay right in the middle of it all! Observe conditions, seek local knowledge and current forecasts. Read and understand your tide tables.

Learn the handling attributes of your kayak in difficult conditions Round bilge kayaks go sideways at a great rate of knots in beam seas and strong winds. Does your rudder bite deep enough? Can you turn your boat without it?

Check all your gear. Is your drink bottle accessible in storm conditions. Will your hat stay on? Sunglasses too (see Training Notes)? Can you pump your cockpit dry hands-free?

Can you roll up in storm conditions? Practise this at sea, not in the pond.

Finally, the big question.

What would you do if you were caught alone in storm conditions and unable to make headway into the sea? Ignoring the fact that land is probably closeby on one side, how would you ride it out and how would you set up your boat to cope with the conditions?