Fresh faces

With a mix of confidence and trepidation, a fresh crop of sailors has signed up for their first trip south. We finds out what drove these four to face the challenges only offshore racing can bring.

Zexi XU

Boat: Jones 70 Noahs II

Position: Backstay

The youngest of Noahs II’s 13-member crew, 18-year-old Zexi Xu is from the suburbs of Guandong in the south of China.

Zexi’s introduction to sailing came at school at age 10, and he relished the sense of freedom it gave him. Now an accomplished dinghy sailor who has competed at China’s national Laser championships, Zexi looks forward to making a career out of sailing.

He began sailing on yachts in January 2018, when he undertook the delivery of a TP52 from Hong Kong to Thailand over 10 days. It was a steep learning curve jumping on a TP52, but he was hooked by seeing the sun rise and set while the yacht reached speeds of 18 or 19 knots.

Next he entered the nine-day Round Hainan Regatta, which was completely different again. Zexi says he felt both nervous and excited to be racing.

In the lead-up to the Rolex Sydney Hobart, Zexi lives with the rest of the team in a residence near the Hunters Hill Marina, and follows a rigorous training schedule. Almost every day they sail from 9 am til 4 or 5 pm. Back on land, they follow this with about two hours of muscle training every evening to ensure they can master the heavy sails and ropes.

Many of the crew are young dinghy professionals, but two of the most experienced sailors are skipper Hongquan Li and helmsman Fulin Chen, who has two Hobarts under his belt already on board TP52 Ark 323.

Back in Dongshan, Fujian, the team has two smaller 30-foot yachts on which they were training every day until coming to Australia to get acquainted with their Jones 70 in mid-October.

When Zexi had the chance to join the team for the Rolex Sydney Hobart (through a team mate) he felt keen for the challenge. Having watched footage from all of the races from 1998 onwards on TV, he knew this would be a tremendous endeavour.

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Joe Ferguson

Boat: TP52 Frantic

Position: Bowman

It was Joe’s next door neighbour, a sailor, who sparked his passion with, “You can’t live on Lake Macquarie and not know how to sail.” Joe started learning on Sabots and Spirals at the age of six, and has now sailed on over 12 different classes of dinghies – from VJs at Teralba and lasers in Samoa, to 16 footers on the lake and his 49er at home – but it wasn’t enough. So he started to get into yacht racing on a small 22 footer.

The 20-year-old carpenter was then lucky enough to be asked by Frantic owner Mick Martin to join an annual offshore regatta out of Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club. “I guess I left a good impression on the crew as I got asked back for a Sydney Hobart at the end of the year,” he says.

He’s been keen to do a Rolex Sydney Hobart since he was 16: “I always used to watch it on TV and think, I’d love to do that at least once. I watched a good friend Lauren Gallaway do it for the past two years and was very jealous of her, so I dropped all my AFL commitments to make my goal of the year come true.”

He says he looks up to everyone on board, “especially the experienced guys because they are on the boat for a reason – they all have great things to offer.”

His nerves are balanced with excitement in the lead-up. “To be honest I don’t know what to expect … But I have faith that the controlling body and all the boats racing have learnt from the past and that everyone, not just us, makes it to Hobart for a nice rum!”

Cooper Ellis

Boat: TP52 Bush Paul Group

Position: Bowman

Cronulla local Cooper turned 18 in August and leapt at the chance to race to Hobart on board mentor and inspiration Ian Short’s TP52.

Having taken part in various east-coast races and deliveries, he says there are three things he likes about TP52s in particular: “Speed, speed, and speed!”

Cooper first learnt to sail at the age of 14 when he ventured down to his local Cronulla Sailing Club and was given a ride on Bruce McKay’s Sayer 12 Wasabi in that day’s race off the beach. From there on he was hooked – and has rarely missed a race in the four years since.

Cooper says it was certainly a challenge fitting in sailing around his studies, but what drove him through the HSC was the excitement of knowing that he would finally be able to fulfil a longheld dream – to take part in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

After Hobart, Cooper is hoping to pursue racing, delivering and maintaining yachts, and his ultimate dream is to take part in a Volvo Ocean Race.

Regarding his hopes for the race, Cooper says he is in two mindsets: “I have full confidence in our crew and race preparations, however butterflies are certainly beginning to creep in. Half of me wants it to be a downwind sled ride, coming in under 48 hours. The other half is hoping for an upwind beating or whatever is thrown our way, which the race is known for. Only time will tell – bring it on!”

LeeAnn Lynch

Boat: Elan 43 Relish IV

Position: Sailing master

LeeAnn hails from Washington State, USA, but has called Australia home for the last 28 years. The nurse, naturopath and educator first became interested in sailing 25 years ago when she lived by the water in Greenwich, Sydney. She watched the sailors being pushed around by the wind and adjusting their sails, and wanted to be out there.

LeeAnn has already clocked up 7,000 nautical miles on her Elan 43 Relish IV over 10 years. “She is a lovely yacht and we have been using her for cruising, mostly along the Australian east coast. Our Lord Howe adventure gave me the largest learning experience. Sailing back to Sydney, we were shorthanded, the autopilot was not working, and a large storm was brewing … I quite enjoyed it. The only thing I was upset about was that I hadn’t updated my will!” she recounts.

Being busy with work commitments, LeeAnn doesn’t have a rigorous training schedule to prepare to sail to Hobart. But she knows she will be ready come December 26. “I think the challenge is very much a mental one, it’s not just physical. As we are cruisers at heart, we will go at the speed that suits us in conditions. We are not trying to beat every other yacht of a similar size.”

The goal is to finish the race; to make it all the way to Hobart and to arrive in time for the fireworks.

At first she and skipper Kalevi Kokkonen were thinking of just sailing down the coast to Hobart, starting roughly the same time as the fleet. But they began to look at the cruising division a few years ago, and this year it felt right to sign up for the race.

“The last two years have been difficult. I was diagnosed with breast cancer and life’s schedule changed,” explains LeeAnn. “I continued to work during my treatment, but my energy stores for sailing were gone. I have recovered, and my strength is returning. So, stuff it … it’s time to get back to the ocean and have an adventure! The sea is in my blood.”

Does she have any worries? “Plenty – the race has a reputation and it will be almost impossible to avoid a southerly change on the way down. We will be far from land and we will need to be self-sufficient in many respects. But when I’m on Relish I feel safe and relaxed. She is a strong and solid girl, I know I can rely on her. I feel at home on her,” says LeeAnn.