Every Easter since 1949 the 308 nautical mile Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race has been held with the start always mid-morning on Good Friday. A fleet of craft of all types and sizes go out to see the start which is just off the Shorncliffe Jetty. It is a very festive morning and the weather is usually balmy and kind. The race is hosted by the Queensland Cruising Yacht Club to which I am a member and is second in importance in Australia to the gruelling Sydney to Hobart.
The fastest yacht in 1949 took nearly two days (47 hours give or take a few minutes) but with modern technology, they now do it in about 20 or so hours. Indeed the boats are so pared down, that crew take the barest minimum in gear and usually the size of a kid’s lunch box, and with food and beverages are also kept to essentials. The inside of the boats are Spartan, empty except for sails and sheets. The masts of more expensive boats are often carbon fibre and the sails Kevlar. The bunks are “hot bunks” i.e. you sleep in the same few bunks on rotating shifts. The technology is very sophisticated with computerised systems, GPS, HF and VHF radio and every navigation device imaginable. These are speed machines that can do 16-20 knots and more. I have hit 7.2 knots in my boat going down a wave.
Their bid to beat the clock means that the race is over before you know it. No longer do we watch and wait all over Easter for the boats to come in. It is like dirty dancing without the roses and champagne. You can watch the progress of the yachts on your computer from home even in the UK as the boats carry satellite gear. The safety requirements are stringent and any boat not complying with the safety specifications on arrival is disqualified.
To me the race holds little appeal. I am not what my wife calls a “racing boy” and although I can see the thrill of it all and have been in many races, I would rather sail for the sheer enjoyment of the sea, the sound of the wind in the sails, the smell of diesel oil in sweet bilges, the crusty taste of salt on your beard, the cry of gulls, the pressure of the tiller in your hand, the surge as the boat down a wave, and the evocative rays of the setting sun gilding a cloud, as we come in homeward through the leads. It is a requiem, a liturgy with the same order but a different Collect, Gospel, and Lesson every time.
Modernity is fixated on beating the clock, whether at work where we set unrealistic deadlines for ourselves and our minions, or speeding through a red light, burning the midnight oil or wrecking a relationship due to impossible demands.
The present cost of such competitive racing is prohibitive. It is not “green”. It is a rich man’s sport. This is not the sport of doctors. We are not in that league. It is of wheelers and dealers, of real estate moguls and property developers and CEO’s of multinational companies. One mast may cost more than a good annual wage for you or me. Sure there will always be the common “Joe Blogs” who has stitched together a boat in his backyard and spent a million hours and made his wife a boat widow. The word boat incidentally stands for “break out another thousand” amongst other expressions.
My boat is made of wood and smells of wood; not fibreglass nor epoxy paint. It is a double-ender and made to part a following sea. Odysseus would have felt at home in her. Speed is not its credo. Her credo is “I am dependable”. I will get you home in a gale.
A few years ago, one of our “racing boys” sank his boat in a race due to excessive speed; too much sail and insufficient ballast. It was knocked down and sank in less than a minute. When his boat was salvaged he trailered it (not her) home and cut it up with a chain saw. It was fibreglass; a plastic boat, and thus expendable. He built something faster.
I went down to my boat today to check on one of the house batteries which is not charging as it should. There were three old men chatting in the cockpit in a lovely varnished yacht next to mine. They had made a cuppa and were basking in the sunshine of one another’s company. The skipper told me he had recently seen my main sheet block come adrift one windy day (we have had a lot lately) and how one of his mates had secured it with a makeshift piece of stainless steel wire. I thanked him as in our club we look after one another and our boats. It the tradition amongst older mariners but may die along with us. We are brothers and the sea is our mistress. I carefully replaced it with a stainless split-pin I had on board.
These three men were all experienced sailor with an average age hitting 80. Their total nautical experience would have been over two hundred years. They talked about previous races they had been in and about boats including one lovely wooden schooner called “Blue Nose” which is still sailing and which one of the men had towed free when it had run aground on a lee shore in a gale when I was a lad.
They were no bunch of “old crumbles” with incontinence pads and losing their minds. They had been out sailing yesterday to see the start of the race. These blokes had done the hard yards, they knew the ropes. Salt ran in their veins. Each to me was his own Odysseus.
“Raising the pine-wood mast to its height in the notch of the cross-bar
Firmly they fixed it, and bracing it taut to the prow with the forestays
Hoisted the fair white sails with the ropes tight-twisted of ox hide,
Struck was the midst of the sail by the wind, and the purpling billow
Shouted in front of the prow as she moved on her way in the waters.”
From the end of Book II of Cotterill’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. (Note he translates it in the hexameter of Homer.)