Sydney to Hobart 2023

Race start: RSHYR 2023

Just flying home from Hobart after having finished this year's race, I'd like to share the highs and lows of this adventure. This was my fourth Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, and by far most eventful. Just the first day or two were more dramatic than all of the earlier races put together...

At the Rolex race village before the start

I was racing on the yacht called Silver Fern, skippered by David Hows. I love sailing with him and I've sailed all of my previous races together with him on his boats, twice on Ocean Gem and now twice on Silver Fern, a 72 ft steel yacht. Silver Fern is a comfortable and robust expedition yacht. I've sailed a couple of legs of the Australian Circimnavigation on this boat - Cairns to Darwin and Geelong-Tasmania-Southport. I've also done the Southport-Sydney delivery and Sydney-Hobart 2022 on Silver Fern. The boat takes on paying crew and it's possible to book a trip on Silver Fern or any of her two sister boats, check the sailing trips available here.

Silver Fern as listed for the race in the official Rolex yacht race catalogue. The numbers in brackets are the numbers of previous Sydney-Hobart races

During the last races, I've mostly been on the helm, and had the position of watch captain. This time, there were several crew that managed the helm, and there were three watch captains appointed: Natalie, Sarah and Jo. This gave the core crew of the boat a possibility to float: skipper David, first mate Liam and myself could interchange and support all the teams.

Santa at the CYCA marina. We all arrived on Christmas Day

The weather briefing before the race was a bit worrying. The first days would present variable winds, with thunderstorms developing along the way, possibly forming right above the sailing fleet. There were warnings of sudden squalls, as well as rain and hail and low visibility. This meant that the winds could go from zero to gale force without a warning. Normally, you would see a storm approaching, visually or on the radar, and could change to the right set of sails - but not with the storm forming right on top of the boat.

Preparing the storm sail for the inspection. This time, we got to use it

The second part of the race promised strong Antarctic winds. Westerlies in the Bass Strait mean high, choppy waves. Southerlies along Tasmanian coast mean beating hard into the chilly wind. Rounding Tasman Light, there would be 5-6 meters waves and smack on head winds once again. Top wind speed in the squalls south of Tasmania was to be 60+ knots. The density of the air at these latitudes makes it hard on the boat. This is Roaring Fourties for you!

Thunderstorm over Sydney Harbour

Already lining up at the start line, we had the first thunderstorm rolling in. The heavy rain drenched Sydney Harbour and rolled out, but several more thunderstorms were on the way. We chose the sails conservatively, and made sure to navigate safely among all the competing boats. We was a few close calls in the harbour, a bit nerve-wrecking. Apparently, the leading boats also had the problem, Scallywag doing a penalty turn off Bondi beach.

The thunderstorm hit just before race start, and this would continue on and off for the rest of the race

Since there were several more people who could handle the wheel, I was not locked on the helm, and could do a lot more on the boat. One of the positions I love is on the bow, and I've never done as much bow work as this time. You get thrown around and drenched in sea water, there is a fair bit of heavy physical work, and it's just perfect - makes you feel alive. The only thing is that I did not have technical knee-pad leggings for the bow work, and did not want to wear my bibs because it was just too hot for that, so I stuck to the shorts. The result was red and very sore knees, later swelling from the salt water. But it was all worth it! Loved every minute of it. As for the helm, I took it as often as I could, mostly at night. Here's a short video from the first day, more to come. 

Peter on the bow, watching the fleet

Jo trimming the sails

It's a bit crowded around the start...

Salt Lines getting right in front of us just outside the Heads

Team work

Usually, we'd finish the race in about four days. This time, however, it came to be something completely different. We either had too little wind to get the boat speed up - or very much wind. Already after passing Sydney Heads, the wind disappeared and we had a frustrating wait for the clouds to roll in and bring the squalls to get us moving.

No wind - or all the wind. You don't get to choose...

Thunderstorms building off Sydney

Sailing away under the Rolex battleflag

The trouble with a large steel boat is that it's heavy, so it requires a bit of wind to get moving. If the wind is too light, the boat speed is lost and in the end there is no steering speed. Normally, you could out up light wind sails to catch the lightest breeze. But in this kind of weather, you have to be careful - the winds may go from none to very strong, and simply overpower the boat.

Heading into trouble

Ill-promising skies

And that was precisely what happened that first night. The idea was that we'd change sails, but all maneuvres took longer time than expected. The crew had done some training on the boat, but most were far from fully skilled when it comes to changing sails, and there were a few hold-ups which is understandable. As opposed to boats with a crew that frequently sail together, it just takes a bit more time. And sometimes, there is a mistake or two. Normally, it can be resolved pretty quickly. But not in case it's about ignoring safety rules.

We got hit by a squall in the middle of the night. I was on the helm, noticing the wind direction change, a sure warning that the squall is coming. I woke up the skipper and he took over the wheel, while four or so of us got onto the deck, getting ready to gybe and drop the genoa which was too large for the growing wind speed.

Once on deck, we realised that the preventer was not attached as it was supposed to. This slowed us down. The wind speed was rising quickly now. Three of us got onto the low side to fix the problem. But now, the squall hit us with the full force. The boat got overpowered and heeled almost 45 degrees, dipping the low side into the water all the way to the top windows.

The water rushing on deck kicked the crew off their feet and plunged them into the waves. I was to the armpits in the sea water, holding on to the shrouds. As I withstood the first pull, I quickly climbed onto the high side not to be washed overboard - even when tethered, you can never be 100% sure. Another crew got himself figured pretty fast. But the third one was in trouble.

Standing in this position during daylight, settled seas and tethered - all good. During night time, boat heeling over, and untethered - not just as fine...

He hadn't clipped on, and was only attached to the preventer line he was holding in his left hand. As he held on to the boat, he was submerged under water. He held his breath for what felt like about half a minute, but the boat was still submerged and dipping lower. So he found himself being washed over the rails.

In this kind of conditions, it's impossible to get back on board by yourself. A line wrapped around your arm is not a safe option, worst case is that your arm gets broken and the line gets untwirled. The crew's automatic life jacket went off in the water, but that is not guaranteed to save your life either. Even with a personal locator beacon set off, it would take us a good 15-20 minutes to get the sails down in this wind and to turn around, then another amount of time to try and get back to the position where the person was lost. Finding a person in this kind of sea state, at night, is virtually impossible. And for the crew, it's just a question of ingesting a bit of water to cause drowning. It can definitely happen while the person is attached to the boat and being dragged alongside - as you try to open the mouth to call for help, or even breathe, you'll get liters of sea water literally poured down your throat.

The skipper saw this happen, dropped the helm and hurried to the rescue. This saved the crew's life, as none of us saw or heard him get washed overboard. As I saw David on deck, I understood there was something serious going on, and ran to him. There, I saw the crew hanging onto the rail. As David was holding on to his arm, I grabbed the other. I tried to get a better grip on his life vest, looking frantically for the tether with was not clipped in. We pulled and pulled, but could not overwin the pulling force of the waves. I yelled for more help, and other crew came over to lift him. Finally he was on the deck, bruised, wet but otherwise unharmed. I was worried about secondary drowning, but he reported no water ingestion. I quickly checked him for any other injuries, and then he was sent down below to dry and rest.

The rest of the night was spent changing sails to smaller and then even smaller. We chose to run with the wind to make the process safer, which caused us to be sailing back towards Sydney. But at this point, we could not allow more incidents. As the morning came with more stable winds, daylight and someone relieving me, I realised I had both sunglasses and a head torch on my forehead. I've been awake ever since the last evening. My body was aching and I think we all were still in a bit of a shock. That night, we could have lost a crew, an irrepairable loss. I just hope this is a good reminder for everyone to wear their life vest and clip on at all times.

Here's the skipper talking about the man over board after that happened, and another walk through after the race was over

Sail changes at night

Realising I had been awake and working throughout the day and night, because I both had sunglasses and head torch still on...

The next few days had everything. Sailing right under thunderstorms, being becalmed and frustrated in beautiful sunny conditions, and then the Bass Strait with gusting about 45 knots with waves of 4 to 6 meters. The spray was flying through the cockpit, the boat heeling quite a bit, and the sailing was exhilarating. This is what it looked like sometimes: me at the helm at night in Bass Strait, 40+ knots and up to 6 m waves, and Mark at the helm during a rainstorm.

The squalls roll in

Altogether, we were becalmed for almost 3 days altogether, in different locations. During these moments, it was important to contain frustration - it's not like we could do anything about it anyway - and try to rest and raise the morale. A personal mission was to look after the crew, keep everyone hydrated, caffeinated and fed. At one occasion, someone jokingly asked for a chocolate croissant with their coffee - and of course I made sure to make one with whatever means we had on board!

Suddenly - no wind, no waves, no movement

Getting the best of the situation by opening up "Lena's Café" and getting everyone coffee, cakes and getting those smiles on their faces!

The trip took a few more days than expected, so instead of celebrating the New Year on the dock in Hobart we celebrated on board. Already in the afternoon we played music and had some snacks, and then a dinner. The athmosphere was festive despite no wind! Here is a video. In fact, I had celebrated many New Years on adventures, for instance this one inside a volcano crater.

The New Year's sunset

For the twelve o'clock celebration, I had planned to prepare a few platters of finger food, and we would have some cold non-alcoholic drinks to celebrate. However, the wind arrived just an hour before som we flew the gennaker, and I spent the New Year's at the helm. We sounded the ship's horn twelve times and cheered - well, at least those of us that were on watch. I had to focus on the kite helming, so there was not much of a celebration at that time. I got to bed at around three.

The day after however, I had some more time to prepare. As the time neared the Swedish New Year, I changed to my evening dress, high heels and accessories, and came up to helm. That was a good laugh with cheers from the team mates. Getting out of the wet gear for once was fun!

Yes, heels are great even if the boat is heeling

Now, to the challenges. A few crew were experiencing sea sickness, especially during the first days. We have sea sickness bags on board, and I lost count of how many I've emptied overboard... I was getting seriously worried about two of the crew who were getting seriously dehydrated because of prolonged sea sickness, where the medication did not work at all. I applied a 4-fold cure consisting of four independent remedies, and in both cases it worked. That moment when somebody goes from hardly conscious and feeling so horrible they just want to finish it all - to smiling and making small talk is what makes me tick. They all recovered fully and got on with their duties perfectly.

Most of the female crew gathered for a photo: Jo, Sarah, Linda, myself and Nat! Missing Marzena in the photo.

The knockdown during the first night caused the sea water flooding over to the fuel tanks, fouling our fuel. This meant we could not start the generator or the engine to make power. Sailing without engine made it even more important to follow all safety rules. Equally, it made us manage the power consumption carefully. We could no longer rely on all systems. The wind power could only be made when the wind was the right strength, which was not often (it was either none or too strong). The solar panels only produced during the day, and as the cloud cover thickened we could not rely on them either. And the hydro power gave us a few amps too, but only when we had a good speed through water, which was not a given. We crosslinked the available battery banks to make the best of them. But even after doing that, we only had power for a finite amount of days. This meant that we had to save energy at all times.

Rainbows after the storm

Without generator, we could not make water - and the water tank was finishing fast. We had to cut all fresh water usage except for drinking and necessary cooking. Everyone was covered by multiple layers of salt and sweat. Some hand sanitizer and we were set. It was definitely more survival mode than comfort. But that's racing for you.

Salty, tired but very happy!

The weather had caused quite a few breakages. We had three torn sails, the rails for the bimini had come off, we almost lost the boom due to gooseneck damage so we could not use main sail during the last day. The crew toilet seat cover was ripped out, probably by someone sitting on it without holding on properly. And a few more smaller breakages. When it comes to crew, there have been a few bruises and hits. And myself, I'm covered with cuts, bruises and rope burns, blisters on hands and feet, and my hands are swollen to the point where it's hard to clench a fist, all due to intensive deck work.

Nearing Tasman Island. Finally!

Getting to that finish line!

he Derwent welcomed us with fog and very light winds. We flew the gennaker and worked our way up, cheered by other boats. We spent an agonising hour in a wind hole, and I almost thought the current would spit us right back past Iron Pot. But then the breeze filled in, and we crossed the finish line. This was the second of January. Most boats had finished and sailed off, but there was still a lot of people cheering us in. Since we had no engine, we had to be towed in to the marina.

Over that finish line - preparing to get towed in...

That beer on the dock is priceless...

Friends and relatives met us on the dock. After a few beers, we hit the showers and then headed to Customs House for the celebration dinner. We had a few strangers buy us drinks to celebrate, which was amazing. They knew who we were, and wanted to celebrate and support us. We felt like absolute rock stars.

This has been a real adventure, with a lot of lessons learned. We've had a bit of everything, but I'm happy that we managed all situations in a good way. It cost us a lot of extra time and extra miles, and we were second to last to come in through the finish line - despite being first in our division on estimated time during an occasion. The important thing for me is that we finished the race. It was not a given - some twenty boats withdrew already before the start, and 18 boats retired during the race. One of the ones that retired was our sister boat, Salt Lines. They had some serious structural damage involving batteries, and also crew that were very unwell. I remember seeing them sail back from Bass Strait, passing us on our port side in the dark. We called them on the VHF and they told us they were retiring. There was a moment of silence. This is not a decision taken easily. But it's also important to keep the boat and the crew safe. They came to Hobart a bit later, and we had a celebration together. And what a celebration!

The grand party at Salt Lines, legendary! Heard there was pole dancing at the mast...

We also had a race between ourselves. Since Salt Lines retired, Silver Fern got the medals for both Line Honours and for the Handicap. Two medals for everyone on Silver Fern - well deserved!

Medals to bring home

At the moment of writing, I'm coming back home. It's a trip of over fourty hours, but I've been sleeping lika a baby on the plane. I must have been a bit tired... I still have land sickness, everything around me is rocking, and I would be waking up wiondering who's at the helm, and whether they need help gybing. I guess it will take me a couple of days to get back into the land crab life. Until the next sailing trip. 

If you are considering sailing or racing - check out this video of Matt, one of the crew members, just before the finish line. And you'll understand why we do it.