Last Word with Tony Ellis

On Boxing Day, Tony Ellis will pull on the sea boots for his 52nd race. He and Tony Cable (also 52 races, including one aboard the radio relay vessel JBW), are in a select club of their own: they have had ringside seats to the Hobart’s colourful history since the early 1960s. Known as ‘Grumpy’ or ‘Ace’, Ellis has done just about everything yachting, including the America’s Cup, and still describes the Sydney to Hobart like being in the midst of majesty.

Written by Tony Ellis

19 December 2019


did my first Sydney to Hobart in 1963 when I was 19 on Bob Rusk’s Salacia. It was fairly strong in Storm Bay. There were no wind instruments in those days, but it was probably 45 to 50 knots. Some said 60. I remember it being bitterly cold as the wind was blowing directly off a snow-laden Mt Robinson (near Mt Wellington).

The reception and hospitality in Hobart was fantastic, and is always worth coming back for. It doesn’t matter what time of the day or night, to arrive under sail gives a deeper appreciation of the skills of the generations of sailors and mariners who came before us.

Salacia was rated as a pretty good boat back then, and toward the larger end of the fleet too because you had Kurrewa IV at 64 feet and Astor at 70; they were the big boats. Safety was a rope you tied around your waist with a clip on the end of it.

Getting to Hobart has got so much faster. With RagsRagamuffin, the 48-footer – I don’t think we did a Hobart in under four days. Even in the 1999 record-breaking downhill run it took just over three days. They will eventually break 30 hours in the right conditions.



Some of the best offshore racing I’ve done has been with Syd Fischer in the TP52 between 2007 and 2011. They are great boats; basically skiffs on steroids. Syd was great to sail with, too. He had a tremendous drive to win and do well. If you were in a race, you were in it to do your very best.

I’m really keen to do this one; the 75th. It will be my fifth trip with David Gotze on one of his 60 footers.

He is a great owner and his approach is competitive, but when the racing’s over we enjoy ourselves. We’ll be looking to capitalise on any advantage we can get over the TP52s.

I feel I’m capable of doing more, but to do a Hobart race and do it properly takes a very serious commitment. It can always snooker you.

We lost a couple on Rags coming up Storm Bay. We were very unlucky in the first race with the TP52 against Rosebud (2007). They came up Storm Bay in four hours; we took ten and they only beat us by one.

The hardest races were the 1993 and the 1998 races. In 1993 it was probably worse as the wind was a south-westerly gale that lasted for days from Wollongong to the finish; or in our case, to east of Flinders Island where we were forced to pull out with major hull delamination damage. In 1998, the winds were stronger and against a strong southerly current, which made the waves stand up in a dangerous way. We were lucky on the Farr Ragamuffin 50; the worst of it for us was in daylight so we could see the really bad waves coming.

Alan Payne, an old friend and well-known naval architect, wrote a paper on rogue waves where he had predicted their frequency, which in the 1998 race was remarkably accurate – approximately every 20 minutes to half hour. We were lucky that we were able to just keep the storm jib up and had good steerage way.

During the race itself, there are incredible moments. You struggle to describe the majesty of what’s happening around you, but you are in the midst of it. Whether it is a moonlight night, or a screaming downwind run under clear skies. One year in the old maxi we were doing about 20 knots and digging a big hole in the ocean. It was pretty fresh and every wave had dolphins diving out of it.

To anyone doing their first race I’d say, be safe. The safety side is so much better, but the speed of the boats is much quicker. It’s a whole different ball game.


  • Advertisement

  • Advertisement

  • Advertisement