TRANSGLOBE: Becky Walford reports first-hand on her Sydney-Hobart Race

Disco jostles to get a decent position on the start line

(edited by Peta)

Becky Walford is the skipper of the TRANSGLOBE fleet yacht Discoverer of Hornet, the RAF yacht that has just competed in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race and who won against her fellow service crews who were racing on Adventure of Hornet (Navy) and Challenger of Hornet (Army). Here she tells it as it was from her’s and Disco’s perspective:

When we all signed up to do the Sydney to Hobart race, we were told stories of glorious downwind sailing in shorts and teeshirts and warm waters off some fantastic Australian Coast!

Well when the big day came it was like being at Cowes Week, it turned out that it was the coldest and wettest Boxing Day for about 25 years!

To add to this it was a down wind start, which meant that it was going to be a beat to Hobart! Apparently an ex tropical cyclone has upset the weather in this region and it was determined to stay until the race was finished!

So once we had the local weather girl giving the weekend forecast from the rig of Disco it was time to let go. We were keen to leave before the Navy as they have dined out enough this year on being the ‘senior service’. We gave three cheers for the other two boats in the fleet and off we trotted, into a very grey harbour.  This was soon made much brighter as we had checked in with our storm sails set and drove around for an hour debating our starting tactics.

Conclusion… you are on the southern line, so keep clear of those super fast things, get away safely and get out of the harbour without getting in the way! There was talk in the mess that morning of one local skipper saying with a combined mass of 120 tonnes he was not going anywhere near those Forces boats! We achieved our objective, with a slightly late start, but had the kite up before we knew it and made our way out of the heads via 2 turning marks, as in all good races.  The wind went very light and was very chopped up by the time we got to the first mark and boats where barging and trying to get into spaces that they were not allowed. Being 40 tonnes we continued along with much momentum and when folks tried to barge I soon reminded them of our weight and construction and gaps amazingly opened up! We were pleased with ourselves when we popped out of the heads, watching the Navy do turns for some infringement!  Soon all three tanks were close together but sadly we were rolled by the Navy who went scooting off to leeward and in to the grey. The Army fought harder but also soon dropped away to leeward followed by a tack which perplexed us!

The first night was horrible but we were very happy to be on a Challenge 67. Amazingly the morning  revealed the Navy leading our class and we were 3rd!  Very happy, but sadly a very grey day continued. We had travelled half way around the world to sail in conditions which were the same as the English channel!  We had also found the EAC (dude) and were making excellent speed. So where were the Navy and the Army?  Disco was in the middle of the two, the army having lost out by going in shore. As the day went past sadly the conditions didn’t suit us so well and we were left massively under powered and all we could do was watch the smaller lighter more moden boats sail away from us.

It’s a hard life!

The next few days where filled with much scratching of heads over weather reports, spinnakers up and down, sewing circle established (thank god for the dining room table) and more importantly trying to keep our tank going! On the evening of the second day we came across the Navy and she stayed in our sights for the next 48 hours. We trimmed and trimmed and trimmed. By now the weather had calmed down so much we were stuck in a high pressure, so the decks became very hot and shade became a premium. With very little wind, life in tank class became very hard. All the weather reports contradicted but as we were in sight of the Navy we didnt want to break away – as far as we were concerned there were only 2 other boats in the race. The scheds confirmed that the super maxis had gone over the horizon at a rate of knots.  With the wind dying, our thoughts turned to those on the smaller boats that might have fuel and water worries, not so in tank class. We fired up the genset regularly and made water as well as microwaving the pre-cooked meals. I think that we can count the amount of teas and coffees we drank on one hand! Electrolyte for us.

Soon we were crossing the Bass Straight and wondering what all the fuss was about, no worse than the channel on this particular occasion! The Banks Strait was next and a little squeeze of wind just as the evening sched was to be had with JBW, and a long debate whether to do our first sail change of the trip, conclusion no.. as the wind would soon die! Low and behold when I came back on watch 4 hours later we were doing 3 knots when we had been doing 10! The Navy were still to windward and the Army by now were about 60m behind. Hmm, this bit of bungy was not going to let us go! We trimmed and trimmed and trimmed and did everything we could. A very bright moonlit night meant that Moonbathing was to be had and charades could be played in the shadow on the mainsail. The weather fax kicked into life and we thought about heading offshore as this was where the wind was due to fill in from but we didnt want to lose sight of the Navy! Only 2 miles between us now, the wind had made us the Windward boat and we wanted to keep them there. After a long afternoon of trimming the newly repaired medium spinnaker a long night watch followed as they sailed us into the cliffs trying to sail us into a hole (think that the Army had found many holes). They tacked, we tacked, they tacked back, we tacked back and they tacked back, hmm, this could be a long night.

Meanwhile, we found somebody close on the AIS on the radar, wonder who that is, ah its JBW who is the comms boat for the race and they had just anchored for supper! Quick chat with them and back to duties, having got a little bit more breeze it was time to tack back, the Navy had dropped back as we knew that we could out-sail them in less than 5knots of breeze but they went offshore, hmm, think that we ought to stay on the massively making tack.

We think we might be ahead of the Navy!

Soon we had mobile phone coverage and texts led us to believe that we were now some distance ahead of the Navy, we were not convinced but when the Sched came in it was confirmed, also confirmed that the Army were coming along very fast on the new breeze which had at last turned into a down wind race in nice wind and shorts and teeshirts! Soon the binos were out ship spotting and we found a boat with a spinnaker that looked very similar to ours and appeared to have blue on the hull! Oh no!  Where has the Navy come from?  Luckily she rotated around and soon showed us a Brown main without logos! Phew.

Some tramp ship tried to run us down as we approached Tasman Isle, but he eventually crash turned behind us, around the Organ Pipes and took the kite down. We were very pleased with our sail repair and  the spinnaker held out!

I duly went off watch knowing that the wind was dying and we had another 40miles to go before the end of the race and we needed to rest! All the team where getting very restless and wouldn’t sleep, but soon the sun was very high and the wind had died and we were becalmed again! The 3 lemons appeared on the log (0.00 knots), but we were still moving.  Storm Bay didnt live up to its reputation, little boats continued to sail by and we tried in vain to make our spinnaker fill. We really needed a light weight kite (sadly no budget to buy, let alone repair and was not to be) but we had to try our hardest with the 1.5oz!  I lost track of how many times it went up and down and how many times we gybed, but amazingly the wind filled in from th sw-completely unforecast!  During our calm patch we could now see the Navy who had been 11miles away at some point creeping up the side of the course.

But we trimmed and trimmed and kept going. The weather gods where kind to us as we crusied up to the Iron pot being about 8miles from the finish. The Derwent is known for being becalmed at night and we were desperate to get in before this and the tide turning! Just in case it did we got the kedge out and tied lots of lines together and prepared for the worse (‘no you are not useing the electric windlass’). The scenery was at last close enough to see and very pretty it was too, with promises to each other about coming back again.  We ghosted up the river with a very low set spin pole and fed up of gybeing (conclusion roller furlers and a sails on bowsprits the way forward) especially with changing with the light weight sheets all the time, all the same, we managed to ghost across the finish line and got in before the Navy!

Phew, later we tied up and were welcomed by folks from the Royal Tasman Yacht Club and CYCA respresentatives, the beers flowed and the moon rose.

A few hours later the Navy arrived and shortly after at 5.30ish the Army tied up and the party really got started!

The atmosphere on the dock was  brillant with boats everywhere and folks following our story. Tales of battles unfolded and many were kind of surprised to hear that we started the race with the number one yankee and the staysail and didnt even unhank them for other sails. (We had to lug the number one gen around even though we aren’t rated for it!). The Army and Navy had only put the kite up once, and they had to beat up the river to get in! Not so for the good ship Disco!

The team understandly were very pleased with themselves as they had won the Oggin Cup which is awarded to the first Forces Entry, the UK were the only forces to put a team in!

New Year’s Eve threw in an incredible thunderstorm as it had been the hottest day in Hobart for about 25 years and this cleared the air before the fireworks at midnight!

New Year’s Day we trotted around to the Yacht Club to attend an excellent prize giving to collect 3 trophies, the Oggin Cup, Polish Trophy for the furtherest travelled yacht. This goes to the tank class boats, and also the first chick skip which was a surprise! The race was won by a great team on a Beneateau First 40 and also runners up with a sister ship. We swapped stories in the sun before saying our thanks and had to dash off to clean the Disco in prepartion of a crew change!

Thank you all for following, the upshot being it was a great race, great spirit and really embraced by the nation, they reckon there were half a million folks watching on line which is quite astounding! Even better we beat Mike Slade and his crew on ICAP Leopard; we didn’t see him at the prize giving!

Becky Walford


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