On Boxing Day veteran Hobart yachtsman John Bennetto will start his 42nd Sydney Hobart. Just think about that!
This is widely regarded as one of the toughest ocean races anywhere in the world and he has already done it 41 times. More than anyone else.
This year, as in so many others, Bennetto has sailed his pretty, blue hulled Frers 47 Mirrabooka all the way from Hobart to Sydney just so that he can rush back down there as fast as he can. He laughs heartily if you ask him if he might be in a bit of a rut.
No. Bennetto just loves everything about the race. The adventure, the competition, the tradition, the crewmates who have become lifelong friends.
People like Bill Watson, who this year sails his 25th Hobart.
Bill has competed on every sort of yacht over the years, from maxis to wholesome cruiser racers like Mirrabooka. He has won line honours three times, on the legendary Condor.
His fondest memory, though, is of the 50th anniversary race in 1994, the first year he competed alongside his son, David. The two are sailing together again this year on Mirribooka.
He says his worst Hobart was when the boat he was on ran out of food. “Even if you’re not hungry, it gnaws on you when you now there is nothing to eat,” he says.
Not much chance of that this year, though. Mirrabooka’s cook, Lloyd Griffith is bit of a legend. He can cook a gourmet meal in any conditions.
“In the middle of the blow in 1998, when the fleet was just scrambling to survive, Lloyd was still down below cooking a roast,” Watson recalls. “We got knocked over and the whole lot ended up in the bilge. Lloyd got one burner going again, fished the roast out of the bilge and steamed it over the veggies. Best roast I’ve ever had.”
Bennetto waxes lyrical about Lloyd’s cooking too, but ask him which one of his 41 Hobarts stands out in his memory and he’ll say 1984 and 1993, when the conditions forced more than 60% of both fleets to retire, and the disastrous 1998 race. He is immensely proud of the fact that he is the only skipper to have finished on all three occasions. In fact in 41 races he has only failed to finish on one occasion.
“There is a time in every Hobart when the ship’s company has to transfer from racing mode to seamanship mode. When keeping the boat together is the aim.
“But this is a race. There also comes a time when you have to transfer back. On occasions we have been too slow coming out of seamanship mode. The wind has dropped but the seas are still big and it’s very easy to just stay comfortable and conservative.”
Bennetto has been part of the changing history of the race, seen the boats and the personalities come and go, and watched as the Hobart has morphed from a gentleman’s cruise south to one of the world’s premier ocean races - a grand prix dash by state of the art boats sailed by the cream of the world’s professional sailors.
He admires the sailing talent of these crews but is disappointed in the approach some designers are taking with many of the yachts. “If the conditions are right they have a great race but the designers tell the owners that if the winds get past a certain strength they should turn around and go home. It’s at its worst in the America’s Cup where the boats can’t sail in winds above 25 knots. But now they are racing in OUR race!”