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Boxing Day on the water: ‘James Craig’ and the Sydney to Hobart yacht race

‘James Craig’ is a Sydney-based barque-rigged tall ship (the two photos above). If you’ve followed my blog for any time, you will have come across photos taken while sailing in tall ships. This year I joined ‘James Craig’ as a passenger (I felt quite wicked not having to pull ropes, or helm, or go aloft, or clean the heads, or wash the dishes …) for a day sail that also gave prime viewing of the first stage of the annual Boxing Day Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

The morning was bright and sunny, and we motored from the ship’s berth in Darling Harbour, along Sydney harbour and out between The Heads (the two headlands that frame the entrance to Sydney harbour from the ocean). It was a perfect few hours of sun tanning, admiring the scenery and taking photos of the ship.

Facts, figures and history of 'James Craig'.

Facts, figures and history of ‘James Craig’. You can also see some of those 50,000 rivets!

Time to set some sails!

Jibs on the bowsprit.

Jibs on the bowsprit.

Crew undoing the gaskets on the fore topgallant sail.

Crew undoing the gaskets on the fore topgallant sail.

The race

Of course, the highlight of the day was seeing the yachts burst out of the harbour and into the ocean. Since 1945, yachts have competed on the day after Christmas in a race covering the roughly 630nm from Sydney to Hobart. They boats must cross the Bass Strait, notorious for high winds, dangerous currents and unpredictable seas. 2015’s race began in idyllic sunshine in Sydney, but the crews knew they would be facing a “southerly buster” later the first night.

This is one of the course markers, seen in front of South Head. There are four markers, two inner and two outer, indicating where the larger and smaller yachts must turn. Pass on the wrong side, and you must turn around, go back and try again! (The red and white lighthouse is the Hornby Lighthouse, which began operations in 1858.)

This is one of the course markers, seen in front of South Head. There are four markers, two inner and two outer, indicating where the larger and smaller yachts must turn. Pass on the wrong side, and you must turn around, go back and try again! (The red and white lighthouse is the Hornby Lighthouse, which began operations in 1858.)

(I freely admit that the quality of these next photos is not great. Maximum camera zoom, sea spray, haze, overcast sky, and trying to shoot bouncing objects while also trying to stay upright on a ship that is itself rolling and pitching was a fatal combination! But you’ll get an idea of what it’s all about.)

The first yachts to pass the heads — and the ones that gather all the glory and excitement — are the biggest ones. These are the rock stars of yacht racing.

And here they are, still in the harbour: Comanche, Perpetual Loyal, Wild Oats XI, Ragamuffin 100 and Rambler.

And here they are, still in the harbour (the ocean is to the right). From right to left: Comanche, Perpetual Loyal, Wild Oats XI, Ragamuffin 100 and Rambler.

Starting to spread out …

And if racing a high-tech 100-foot yacht isn’t hard enough, the crews have to contend with the dozens of small boats around them.

Perpetual Loyal surrounded by spectators.

Perpetual Loyal surrounded by spectators.

That explosion beside Comanche is a small power boat hitting a wave.

That explosion beside Comanche is a small power boat hitting a wave.

No, that's not a cliff face behind that tiny power boat, it's Comanche. Look at how big those waves are, and how small that boat is! And none of those people are wearing a life jacket.

No, that’s not a cliff face behind that tiny power boat, it’s Comanche. Look at how big those waves are, and how small that boat is! And none of those people are wearing a life jacket.

This is Wild Oats (L) and Ragmuffin (R), and hordes of spectator boats.

This is Wild Oats (L) and Ragmuffin (R), and hordes of spectator boats.

Here’s Wild Oats again. The people give some scale to the size of the yacht!

Tiny people, giant sail!

Tiny people, giant sail!

In case you’ve got the idea that there are only five boats in this race, think again! Dozens of yachts of various sizes take part. The fastest takes just over two days to reach Hobart; the slowest just over four days.

Here they come, straggling out into the ocean.

Here they come, straggling out into the ocean.

No spectator swarm for the middle of the pack!

No spectator swarm for the middle of the pack!

Heading off to Tassie, spinnakers flying.

Heading off to Tassie, spinnakers flying.

Back on ‘James Craig’

It was time for us to head for home. And yup, it started to rain. The weather did have the advantage of clearing the decks and giving a new look to the ship.

I could not have taken this photo of the poopdeck before the rain, as it was packed with people.

I could not have taken this photo of the poopdeck before the rain, as it was packed with people.

What IS this thing? An exhaust? A speaking tube? A garbage chute?

I don't know what it is, but it's eye catching. Even in the rain.

I don’t know what it is, but it’s eye catching. Even in the rain.

Here is the ship’s second bell, which I hadn’t spotted until cowering under an awning while hiding from the rain.

Turn the glass and strike the bell!

Turn the glass and strike the bell!

I do know that this thing is: a bilge pump, which relies on human power to work. Luckily for the crew (all volunteers), they don’t actually use it.

Bilge pump.

Bilge pump.

These wonderful lines belong to a wooden boat mounted on the deck house.

Perfectly symmetrical planking.

Perfectly symmetrical planking.

Rain adds an interesting element to things you might otherwise take for granted.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge loomed over us as we neared the turn into Darling Harbour.

You may have to look twice to make out the bridge and two flags.

You may have to look twice to make out the bridge and two flags. That curved metal thing is not part of the ship!

Looking up the fore mast as we passed under the bridge.

Looking up the fore mast as we passed under the bridge.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into an Australian Boxing Day tradition. I know I had a great day! You can read the full story behind the ‘James Craig’ — its working life, abandonment and resurrection by a dedicated team of volunteers — at the Sydney Heritage Fleet website.

Race update: the wild weather of the first night played havoc with a number of boats. At time of writing, 1 day and 6 hours into the race, 22 yachts have retired, including two of the maxis. The mainsail of Wild Oats (which has been the first yacht to reach Hobart for the past eight years) split during a squall, and although no one was injured the yacht returned to Sydney. Perpetual Loyal pulled out with a broken rudder. Comanche hit something in the dark, suffering a broken rudder and damaged daggerboard, but the crew decided to continue the race as best they could. Hours later, Rambler, too, struck something, but is limping on.
The five yachts closest to Hobart are: Comanche (US), Rambler (US), Ragamuffin (AUS), Maserati (Italy) and Ichi Ban (AUS). If you’d like more information, visit the official race site.


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8 thoughts on “Boxing Day on the water: ‘James Craig’ and the Sydney to Hobart yacht race

  1. Disregard my comment on the other blog. I can SEE you had a good Christmas 🙂 Do you know Lisa Dorenfest? She was out in the harbour too, but in a small craft. I saw TV coverage today that the seas had turned wild and the resulting mayhem 😦

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  2. You have a lot in common with Lisa http://lisadorenfest.com/ as she is a sailor too. I love some of your shots on the ship, you really do tune in to the details. And those sails are HUGE! I was on a Manly ferry last year in huge waves, we had to change direction towards the Heads and then back in to Manly. I would not like to be on one of the small craft!

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