Seahorse Magazine // News Around the World
New Zealand’s premier offshore race, the annual 120-mile Coastal Classic from Auckland to the Bay of Islands, this year suffered the first fatality in its 41-year history, the death of 69-year-old Simon Smith, a well-loved schoolmaster and experienced sailor, casting a pall over the popular event.
A lifelong sailor, Simon’s sailing CV included crewing aboard United Friendly, skippered by Sir Chay Blyth, in the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1981. ‘Simon was one of those guys every- one needs on a boat,’ said Paul Tremewan, who also sailed on United Friendly. ‘He worked his arse off and though he was only five-foot-bugger-all he could helm in places where few of us could.’
Tremewan and Smith shared many other sailing adventures including crossing the Atlantic with Dame Naomi and Rob James. The incident occurred in darkness in big, confused seas and winds gusting 30kt at Cape Brett, the major turning point of the race where the fleet heads into the Bay of Islands for the final 20nm dash to the finish. By chance a Coastguard training exercise was in progress nearby and was able to assist. Two other crewmen were also injured. A spokesman for Maritime New Zealand confirmed that an investigation into the fatality is underway.
As for the race itself, southeasterly conditions held the potential for fast times, but a startline change meant no records would be recognised. Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour has been plagued by a major sewer line failure (now repaired), which contaminated beaches and restricted recreational boating. Accordingly, the start- line was set outside the harbour, shortening the course.
As it happened, at least three competitors – the Melges 40s Clockwork and Sassinate, and a 41-year-old Ross 930, Hotdogger – set faster times than their respective class records.
After a slow start in very light, shifty conditions the fleet romped up the coast in a building SE breeze which offered a fast reach to Cape Brett, a single gybe into the Bay of Islands and a 20-mile blast to the finish line. In the battle for line honours, conditions favoured monohulls, with the hugely successful Brett Bakewell-White modified TP52 Wired, owned by Rob Bassett, taking honours, eight minutes ahead of Whitbread veteran Erle Williams’ 54ft catamaran, Apache.
But on handicap the race was a small boat bonanza. Monohull honours went to Steve Mair’s Melges 40 Clockwork, followed by Doyle Sails CEO Mike Sanderson’s Shaw 35 Rehab, with Sinisa Grujicic’s Ross 930 Hotdogger completing the podium. All three adopted the same strategy – prioritising speed over strict course- keeping – completing the race with a single gybe at Cape Brett.
Switching several times between full main and a single reef, and between a masthead A2 gennaker and a fractional reaching code zero, kept Clockwork within a mile or two of the TP52s and the scratch catamaran Apache all the way. ‘These boats are so exhilarating to sail, although they do ship a lot of water!’ said Mair. There were hopes of building a class of Melges 40s in New Zealand, but sadly the trend is in the other direction. Of the four that came into the country, one has already been sold to Australia. And, as Mair’s Clockwork completed the course, he received a WhatsApp message from Croatia. ‘I had been talking to this guy about the boat and he sat up all night following us on the PredictWind tracker. As we crossed the line he bought the boat on the spot. ‘At that stage we were rapt that we unofficially beat the 40ft record and won our division. When we heard we had won the entire race I was very happy to end my time with this boat on that note!!’ Mair and Sanderson were both supported by slightly unconventional crew complements. From the outset Mair, a past commodore of the Royal NZ Yacht Squadron, was determined to sail with an all-amateur crew, including two women and two current members of the Squadron’s highly regarded youth programme. A formula that has served him well. ‘For me it is not so much about the boat. It is more about the crew and the people I get to hang out with. We have had so much fun,’ he said. While the sale of Clockwork goes through he already has his eyes on a bigger, less wet boat with more offshore and international events on his radar.
Sanderson likewise had an eclectic combination onboard, includ- ing his two older children, Millie (16) and Merrick (14), and a friend Morgan Lay (16), all of whom race 29ers. Also in the line-up was Mark Christensen, who recently returned to New Zealand after many years in the USA. Sanderson and Christensen last sailed together on 2005 Volvo Race winner ABN Amro.
Sanderson has previously involved his kids in Cherub dinghies. Having graduated to 29ers, Millie in particular was keen to get a taste of offshore keelboat racing. With three partners, Sanderson picked up an 11-year-old Rob Shaw canting-keeler with a chequered history. It began life as a fast cruiser, then spent time in Noumea under French owners, who installed a new keel and carbon rig and campaigned in a couple of races.
‘When we bought it, it was rough as guts and had been sailed on its own bottom to and from New Caledonia, which seemed a bit ambitious to be honest!’ After a month’s refit and new sails, Rehab made its racing debut in the Coastal Classic claiming second.
Sanderson has history with Rob Shaw’s designs, which he rates highly. ‘Years ago I had a 10m flush-deck Shaw canting-keeler called Orbit,’ he recalled. ‘Although it was very quick it was well mannered, no vices, not an angry boat. That made me comfortable we could do something fun with this one with the kids involved.’
And fun they had, racing north in company with the hot 40-footers. Although they never reefed the main they did ‘a fair few sail changes’ up the coast, switching between jibs, fractional reaching code zeros and masthead gennakers. ‘We saw 22-24kt of wind, with a bit more breeze as we approached Cape Brett. We were doing more than 20kt for much of the race – not bad for a little boat…’
After the race Sanderson waited for the breeze to switch to the north then came ripping back to Auckland, just him and the teenagers who completed the race plus Morgan Lay’s 14-year-old brother, also a 29er sailor. ‘They did all the sailing. I just sat in the corner and only spoke up if they were about to muck it up. We had a heap of fun.’
If the first two boats featured somewhat unusual crew combina- tions, so did the third member of the podium party. Hotdogger only had two onboard, Grujicic and his friend Nigel Bish, who also races his own Ross 930. These high-performing boats, designed in 1982 at a time Kiwi designers were pushing hard on light displacement, have attracted a devoted following. Their narrow, easily driven hulls offer good upwind performance, while the flat run aft ensures blistering downwind speeds and all at reasonable cost. Some have been modified with heavier keels, carbon masts and prods for gen- nakers and code zeros, making for downwind speeds of 20kt+.
‘We started with a fairly conservative approach, but as the breeze built we just tried to keep the boat on its feet!’ said Grujicic. Sailing with a full main all the way and switching between code zero, gennaker and A3 kept them in company with boats 40ft and above all the way up the coast. ‘We had a bit of a cluster at Cape Brett when we managed to trawl the gennaker, which cost us 10 or 15 minutes. It was about 10pm and the breeze was up at 30kt with horrible seas coming from every which way. Perfect timing.’
Having recovered the gennaker they completed the final stretch under jib and main. ‘It was a beam reach at that point, in gusty con- ditions with big bullets coming off the hills that we could not see. It was the fastest run I have ever done on that final section of the race, but by that stage we were running on pure adrenalin. It was good.’
Across the fleet, however, the customary boisterous post-match celebrations were muted, in the knowledge that one of their fellow racers had lost his life. ‘It was unimaginably sad,’ said Steve Mair. ‘We had a moment’s silence at the prizegiving. It was a very moving gesture to show respect and a stark reminder that the sport we love can be brutal.’