Inside Australia’s home of sailing
“Meet you at Rushcutters Bay. It’s lovely there,” she said. “I walk there a lot.”
That was the text from my contact in Potts Point.
It made sense as I was coming from North Bondi.
And there it was – parkland spilling down to the water’s edge of this inlet virtually in the shadow of Sydney Harbour Bridge.
There, near the charming cricket ground complete with picket fence, the tennis courts and the coffee shop – the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the starting point of Australia’s great blue-water sailing classic the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.
Rushcutters is an unlikely link between the cosmopolitan lifestyle of Potts Point and the gentrified Darling Point with its neighbouring Double Bay.
The Sydney to Hobart race is a sporting classic to rival the first day of the Boxing Day test cricket match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
It’s that day when everyone becomes an expert on sailing.
Just like the Melbourne Cup, the horse race that stops a nation on the first Tuesday in November.
That is when everyone has an opinion, some inside information on what horse is going to run the race of its life to be listed among the other gallant thoroughbreds.
Just like the Melbourne Cup that has the intrigue of just about any of the runners being able to win so it is with the Sydney-Hobart when the minnows of the sailing world set off against the multi-million dollar maxi yachts, hoping to win the overall prize on handicap rather than line honours.
Every summer we would watch the start of the Sydney-Hobart on television – first there was the race to clear the heads protecting Sydney Harbour and then for the yachts to head south on the 630 nautical miles to Hobart.
To me, the Cruising Yacht Club seemed to be the home of the blue-chip set – those who had achieved success either on the water or in the corporate board room. A place where you either had to be born into membership or achieved it through your sailing ability.
Yet here we were, out front of this low-level building and not the imposing citadel I had expected.
It was as if I had just stumbled upon it so decided to see if we could have a look inside – perhaps get a coffee.
Right at the entry was a poster proclaiming the 50th anniversary of Australia in the Admirals Cup, for many years known as the unofficial world championship of offshore racing.
Instead of an intimidating commodore at the front desk there was a friendly face asking if she could help.
“Could we have a look through, grab a coffee?’’ I asked.
“Yes, we just need you to register as a visitor,’’ she said.
“We’re from Queensland. Is Ken Down here for the Admirals Cup reunion?’’
“Yes, he should be on the docks. They are having a race on the harbour today.’’
Ken is an architect based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. He grabbed the headlines in 1979 as the only Queenslander in the successful Australian team in that dramatic Admirals Cup series that went down in the annals due to the disastrous Fastnet Race in which 18 yachtsmen and rescuers drowned.
There on the walls of the CYC are the newspaper cuttings, the photos and the flags of the Admirals Cup. The badges of such Australian yachts as Police Car, Love and War, Impetuous, Ragamuffin …
The Admiral’s Cup regatta started in 1957 and was normally held in odd-numbered years between national teams. Ten years later a team of three Australian yachts arrived in Cowes, the home of sailing in the UK: Caprice of Huon, Balandra and Mercedes III.
They beat the crack three-boat teams from Great Britain, France, Spain and the USA, and in doing so signalled that Australian offshore racing had arrived on the world stage.
Today there is the chance to also browse through the history of the Sydney-Hobart – follow the years since its modest inception in 1947 as a true cruise to Hobart.
Here, on a sunny day in early December, with about a 15-knot north-easterly blowing across the water, I had a feeling of awe while stepping onto the first finger of the quays.
And there at a mooring is a beautiful ketch with a US flag flying at its stern.
It was like jumping my shadow, remembering seeing Errol Flynn’s elegant Sirocco moored at Mooloolaba in the early 1970s.
Dorade, that is the gold-lettered name on the stern. New York.
Hogan is working on the rigging and tells me they are from the San Francisco Bay Yacht Club.
The 52-foot yawl is an Olin J Stephens design and built in City Island, New York.
She made history as the first ocean racer to be rigged as a Marconi yawl.
Hogan was sailing in Australia in 1987, at Fremantle for the America’s Cup.
Dorade was the complete blue-water yacht, having completed the Transatlantic Race in 1930 in just 17 days instead of the three to four weeks it had taken until then.
Now, the new owners are taking her around the world to compete in all the races she has taken part in during an illustrious history.
Yet this was to be the first Sydney-Hobart and Hogan was looking forward to it.
There’s another onlooker on the dock, and I remark about what a magnificent craft Dorade is.
“Yes,’’ he replies, “I’ve been lucky enough to be on board.’’
He was particularly fascinated by the ventilation system, in which water is drained away from the air intake areas.
Then there are the push-up skylights raised above the deck, that remind you of the classic movies with yachts sailing the South Seas.
That’s when he introduced himself as Ian and his niece Gina had just joined us.
Gina reminded him they were due down at Ragamuffin so they could set sail in today’s race.
“Do you know Ken Down,’’ I ask.
“Yes, I think he’s across the other side of the harbour. He’s due to race today but I think they ran into a bit of trouble yesterday.’’
That’s when my contact recognises him.
Ian Treharne. Treharne … that name is yachting royalty.
Ian and his younger brother Hugh, who was as the tactician on Australia II when it won the America’s Cup in 1983.
Both have strong links with Ragamuffin.
And there she is. The crew for the day were all recalling history as they prepared for a day out on one of the greatest harbours in the world.
The skipper for her was John McDonald.
“Just call me Macca … and say hello to all my mates up on the Sunshine Coast,’’ he says while helping pack the spinnaker ready to pass it on board.
Other yachts moored nearby include Heartbreaker, the original Wild Oats, and then there is Wizard – the 2011-2012 Volvo Ocean Race winner Groupama, that was renamed Giacomo and went on to compete in the Sydney-Hobart.
In 2016 she was second in line honours to Perpetual Loyal and overall winner.
Who’s this? Peter Shipway, a veteran of 30 Sydney to Hobarts and ready to make it 31 aboard Wild Oats XI this year.
Having three wins on handicap to his credit and three line honours, Shippers is regarded as a legend in ocean racing.
Further along the quay I meet Martin Sheppard scrubbing the teak deck of Black Sheep, a Beneteau 45 he races in conjunction with brother Derek.
It’s his fifth time to Hobart on Black Sheep and 10th overall.
“So what can you tell me about the race?’’ I ask.
“Hobart? It feels so good when you stop.
“The race itself is invigorating.
“It’s also a distraction. It’s the only time you think of nothing else.’’
The inaugural Sydney-Hobart race in 1945 had nine starters and the winner took six days 14 hours 22 minutes.
This year there were 102 starters. The largest fleet was 371 in 1994.
On average 82% of the fleet complete the course.
This year Wild Oats XI crossed the line in a time of 1 day, 8 hours, 48 minutes and 50 seconds only to lose on protest to Commanche that posted a time of 1 day, 9 hours, 15 minutes and 24 seconds.
Wizard crossed the line in sixth position in a time of 01:13:43:47, winning the IRC Division 0.
Black Sheep was 45th overall in 03:08:33:547, winning the IRC Division 3 and ORCi Division 3.
Hartbreaker finished 35th in 03:00:38:09.
Dorade crossed the line in 77th Place overall in a time of 03:06:37:58.
She was 32nd in the IRC category and second in IRC Division 4, 22nd in ORCi and second in ORCi Division 4.
Rushcutters is a relatively small bay, an easy walk from the city and which attracts locals and tourists.
It was first known as Rush Cutting Bay because of the tall rushes growing there that were used by early European settlers for thatching houses.
On this day over coffee, looking back on the gleaming yachts, the masts and spars, it is relaxing, peaceful, scenic, friendly.
It reminds my contact how our society has altered since she first visited this club 45 years ago.
“Back then formality was the atmosphere created by the members,’’ she tells me.
“Gaining entry wasn’t easy. Money talked.
“It seems now the passion of sailing talks.’’