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Why don't we make a race of it?

Why don't we make a race of it?
The crew of Rani, the first winner of the historic Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. From left: Capt. k. Vaughan, Lt. R. Richmond, Lt. J. Hoggard, Norman Hudson (mate), J. Coloham, W.P. Mews (navigator), Capt. J. Illingworth (skipper)

With a little under six months to go before the 74th Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, we're taking a look back at the moments that have made the great race what it is today. Join us on this journey, starting with the amazing story of the inaugural Race in 1945...

Just one year after the inception of the Cruising Yacht Club in 1944, Jack Earl, an original Member, sat aboard his beautiful 13.4-metre ketch Kathleen Gillett in Sydney’s picturesque Quarantine Bay. Anchored alongside him were two highly experienced Tasmanian yachtsmen, and fellow clubmates, brothers Bert (CYCA President at the time) and Russ Walker.

Jack, along with his wife Kathleen, and children Mick and Maris, were planning a nice quiet cruise to Hobart over Christmas, and sought to gain some knowledge from the well-travelled Walkers. After having rowed over to the brothers’ yacht Saltair, and pouring over charts all afternoon, it was decided that the two yachts would set out together, a ‘cruise in company’ for the Apple Isle. The seeds of the Sydney Hobart had been sewn.

Weeks later, inside Sydney’s Usher’s hotel, the CYCA Committee met, along with their honoured guest, John H. Illingworth, one of the greatest exponents of sailing and ocean racing ever to visit Australia. Upon hearing the plans of the CYCA Committee, a rambunctious Captain Illingworth reportedly uttered what were to become some of the most historic words in ocean racing history:

“Why don’t we make a race of it?”

And with that, the great race, now in its 74th year of challenging the most adventurous of yachtsmen and women, was born.

26 December 1945 was a beautiful summer’s day in Sydney as the “first fleet” set sail. Warm to hot weather was expected, and it is said the only cloud looming on the horizon was that Sydney’s boisterous pubs looked like they would be completely out of beer before New Year’s Day! Captain Illingworth’s 10.6-metre Bermudan cutter Rani, and the crew pictured above, set out in what was the second smallest yacht in the complement of nine.

After a dream run down the southern coast of New South Wales, a real cloud (unlike the one produced by the beer shortage!) began to appear on the horizon. The race’s strong favourite Winston Churchill, bequeathed the name only after owner Percy Coverdale received special written permission from the man himself, was out in front, sailing first into the storm. Rani, along with the 12.2-metre Bermudan ketch Horizon, sailed out to sea and were ‘lost’ to the search capabilities of the time.

The wild weather saw seven of the fleet batten down the hatches and seek shelter along the coast, or the lee of islands in Bass Strait. Rani and Horizon were nowhere to be seen. Avid spectators simultaneously feared for the yachts, and waited with heavy anticipation for the first of the adventurers to sail up the River Derwent to Tasmania’s historic capital Hobart.

The cry went up, a boat had been spotted, the lighthouse keeper on Tasman Island reporting a white hull, and sail number 14. It was Rani. Captain Illingworth and his crew, having courageously sailed into the worst of the weather, rounded the island and came into the port flanked by a launch carrying happy New Year’s revellers.

“How are we going?” Illingworth enquired to the raucous amusement of those on the launch. Rani’s crews’ hearts sank, believing they were last in, and quietly thinking the revellers to be rather inebriated to respond only with laughter.

 “You are winning” came the simple response, to which Illingworth and crew were stunned.

“How many boats are in?”

Those on the launch were beginning to understand the situation – Rani had no external communications with the rest of the fleet. They closed in on the cutter, handing over a bottle of whisky to the crew. “You are the first!”

John H. Illingworth and the crew pictured above sailed into the Derwent River, claiming first place both on Line Honours and Handicap, a feat to this day only accomplished by a handful of crews. The inaugural Sydney Hobart had been run, canonising the first fleet, and the Hobart itself in Australian Sailing history, and the race we now know as the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race was born. 

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This and many other amazing stories of the history of the Cruising Yacht club of Australia can be read in "Ratbags to Respectability," a celebration of the history of our great Club. You can purchase this and other great memorabilia at our online store available here.