Written by Scott Alle
Photography by Marzena Kalbarczyk
On the coldest day in Sydney for six months a fleet of 84 boats slipped their lines at headed out for the first race of what is one the largest weekly winter regattas held in any port around the world.
Winter Series is a ritual for a committed cohort of Sydney based sailors; checking the forecast during the week leading-up to Sunday and deciding which gear to dig-out of the locker. You never quite know whether it’s going to be a float-fest or a lead parting experience for your closest canine companion.
Recent years have tended to be mainly on the light side, with the odd vicious southerly cell that inevitably causes mayhem and stuffs the sailmakers’ repair bins to overflowing and spills out on to adjoining racks – we haven’t seen one of those for a while.
Pre-race checks of Seabreeze revealed a consistent race day forecast of SSW up to 28 or 29 knots. On the edge for some, but if you can’t handle a bit of breeze then what’s the point of going sailing? Oui? After all 30 knots was de regur for Moitessier or Sir RNJ for thousands of nautical miles.
Aboard Triton, a Lyons/Cawse 60 owned by Michael Cranitch and David Gotze and the defending DivisionA1 winner, a smaller but full offshore main and no 4 headsail were deemed the right starting combination for the first upwind leg to Kirribilli.
As the last boat off the line in the staggered start sequence, we selected pursuit mode and adjusted the sights on the TP52s Zen, Gweilo, Koa and Wot Eva ahead of us, plus Smuggler, UBS Wild Thing and Duende even further down the track.
The hoist of the A4 spinnaker at the Shark Island gate was a respectable one, but we suffered a slight malfunction when the jib auto gybed and wrapped around the forestay. The bow team though with Disco as principal wrangler sorted the problem and we surfed across the harbour toward the marks off Cannae Point.
It was obvious however by the darkening grey curtain out to sea that at least a medium rinsing was on the cards for the fleet, now strung out from Quarantine Head to Garden Island.
At 1.13 pm the weather bureau instruments on the Wedding Cake West cardinal marker dispassionately recorded a wind gust of 37 knots.
You could see the squall coming; tearing the small foaming crests off the waves pushing across Rose Bay and lacerating the water ahead of it into spray.
We were just about to tack behind the strategically moored James Craig when it sought us out and held us in its grip for long seconds as all 60 feet and 12 tonnes of Triton was literally blown sideways toward Hermit Point. Later someone on the rail reported they could see turbulence coming off the keel as we attempted to get some sheet on so we could tack away from the approaching shore.
It required winding-in both the active and lazy sheet to get some traction and forward momentum but we managed it and set-off down the Harbour toward the bridge at about 15 knots as the squall continued to buffet us with powerful gusts and driving rain.
At this point a number of boats decided that 40 knots was basically not in the brochure and dropped their mains and motored toward the warmth and tonics generously provided by the CYC clubhouse.
We continued though, ostensibly for handicap “adjustment reasons”, but didn’t put the kite up again and secured a conservative last in DivisionA1, with Zen, Gweilo, and Koa taking out the top three places.
For the record the squall generated a gust of 66 knots, logged at 1pm at Wattamolla but as noted by the Bureau: “the wind behaviour at Wattamolla is often far more intense than surrounding stations, and is not always representative of conditions at sea-level close to the coast. This is because Wattamolla is on top of a very exposed cliff, and 44 metres above sea level.”
The CYCA’s Race Officer John Allen commented: “there were some strong gusts which came through and inconvenienced a few boats getting them cold and wet. A few boats retired with some minor gear breakages, but all yachts and crews were safe.”
Those of us who were out there definitely experienced the full spectrum of weather the harbour can deliver; from a nice reach in autumn sunshine to being pummelled by a vengeful little front bent on exposing your wardrobe deficiencies.
Therein lies the attractions of Winter Series racing.