Monday, July 9, 2018

20 YEARS ON: The 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race

In what was the largest peacetime search and rescue effort ever seen in Australia, 55 sailors were rescued, six lives were lost, and five yachts abandoned. The 54th annual running of the "blue water classic" Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race was the most disastrous in the race's history.

The race began as all others had, from Sydney Harbour at 1PM on Boxing Day. The 1998 start saw 115 boats face a favourable current running south at 4 knots, with strengthening north to north-easterly winds of generally 25-35 knots off the New South Wales southern coast. This resulted in a high-speed dash down the Australian east coast towards Tasmania. Hopes were high for a new race record.

By early morning on the 27 December, the lead yachts entered Bass Strait, the stretch of water separating the island state of Tasmania from mainland Australia. The fleet began to encounter winds in excess of 40 knots. An unusually strong low-pressure depression had developed which resulted in mid-summer snow across parts of south-east Australia.

The weather system built into an exceptionally strong storm with winds greater than 65 knots and gusts to 80 knots. Boats became swamped in the huge seas, masts came crashing down, and seasoned sailors took to life rafts. Many were washed overboard. One was Gary Schipper. Without a life jacket, he was rescued from the sea in the black of night by his crewmates. He went on to become a staunch water safety advocate. Here’s a past interview by Hamish Macdonald on ABC radio, speaking with me and yachting legend Ian Kiernan about Gary Schipper and the 1998 race:

Six sailors died in the horrific conditions at sea that year. Phillip Charles Skeggs was washed off Business Post Naiad. Bruce Raymond Guy on the same vessel suffered a heart attack trying to survive. John Dean, James Lawler and Michael Bannister lost their lives when Winston Churchill was inundated. Glyn Charles, a crew member with Sword of Orion also drowned.

Overall, the rescue effort involved 35 military and civilian aircraft and 27 Royal Australian Navy vessels. Of the 115 boats which started the race, 71 retired seeking refuge where they could. Only 44 yachts made it to Hobart.

Six months later, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (the race organiser) released their report, listing a multitude of recommendations, which resulted in changes both for future Sydney to Hobart races and yachting events worldwide. Amongst other things, crew members must carry personal safety beacons, wear life jackets in certain conditions, and have tethers.

But it was the coroner’s report nearly 2 years later that was blistering, critical of both the race management at the time and Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.

He said the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia had "abdicated its responsibility to manage the race". He wrote: "From what I have read and heard, it is clear to me that during this crucial time the race management team played the role of observers rather than managers and that was simply not good enough."

The day after the coroner's findings, the club's race director resigned his position.

The coroner also criticised the Bureau for making insufficient efforts to inform race officials of a dramatically upgraded weather forecast about the severe storm developing, when it was common public knowledge the race was scheduled to begin.

Twenty years on, and the lessons learnt continue to be heeded. The yearly race is now an unofficial memorial to the crew members who sailed for the final time, and a tribute to the people who risked their own lives to save many others.

Each year it’s a glorious event, but one that will remain shaped by tragedy.

(This article is a personal reflection and the views and opinions are my own).