Rolex Sydney Hobart: Maxi magic masks Asian connections
Andoo Comanche, the radical French-designed maxi yacht chartered from a private Singapore owner, took line honours, and Geoff Hill’s Santa Cruz 72 Antipodes, sailing for RHKYC, were among 109 starters in the year-end Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. Next up is the Rolex China Sea Race on April 5.
Words: Bruce Maxwell
Photos: Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi & Andrea Francolini
Hamilton Island Wild Oats leads the 100ft maxis out of Sydney Heads
The original Comanche, a 100-foot wide-beam flier created by leading French designers VPLP-Verdier and built at Hodgdon Yachts in America, made her debut at the event in 2014, owned by US billionaire Jim Clark and his Australian wife Kristy. The couple had several other cruising and racing super sailboats.
Wild Oats X1 pipped them for line honours that year, but they bounced back with a win in 2015. Bought by Jim Cooney and Samantha Grant just before the 2017 Rolex Sydney-Hobart, she romped home as LDV Comanche in 1 day 9 hours 15 minutes for the 628 nm course, setting the existing race record.
Transpac and Fastnet successes did not deflect her focus from the Rolex Sydney Hobart, taking line honours again in late 2019, but then Covid lockdowns caused regatta upheavals worldwide.
Not until 2022 did she re-emerge under a new Singapore owner, who does not wish to be identified, and a two-year charter was taken out by third generation Sydney sailor John “Herman” Winning Jr.
Plenty of 60-80 footers were on the maxis’ transoms
In 2021 a Covid-reduced fleet had seen Peter Harburg’s Monaco Yacht Club-registered Black Jack defeat Christian Beck’s LawConnect and Lee Seng Huang’s SHK Scallywag in the line honours battle of the 100ft maxi yachts. Lee is best known in Asia for his Sun Hung Kai roles, and in Australia as CEO of Malaysia’s Mulpha, which owns Sanctuary Cove and Hayman Island.
Back in business in 2022, Andoo Comanche, named this time for the charterer’s Andoo-branded furniture and appliances stores, was once more up against Black Jack, LawConnect and legendary nine times line honours winner Wild Oats X1, re-named Hamilton Island Wild Oats.
All four maxis nearly came to grief as the yachts set off from staggered start lines in Sydney Harbour on Boxing Day, December 26, close-tacking up a channel to The Heads, and hemmed in by record numbers of spectator boats.
Language on board, broadcast live by TV Channel 7, was fairly fruity as the yachts came within inches of collisions, and both Andoo Comanche and Hamilton Island Wild Oats opted to perform exonerating 720° penalty turns, the former after clearly hitting a mark of the course.
The Rogers 46 Mayfair rounding a buoy ahead of the British-entered JPK 11.80 Sunrise, the IRC3 division winner
Long-time America’s Cup Race Director and former Australian AC skipper, Iain Murray, had switched his allegiance from Hamilton Island Wild Oats to Andoo Comanche as strategist and sailing master, but Wild Oats still had her vastly experienced skipper Mark Richards at the helm.
As it turned out, the maxis tactically all opted to sail well offshore in their passages south, looking for optimum reaching and running conditions. At one stage, the race record seemed set to be broken. Andoo Comanche already holds the 24-hour sailing record for monohulls, in a Fastnet, averaging 25.75 knots over 618 nm, so she certainly had the potential to break her own Rolex Sydney-Hobart mark.
But predicted stronger winds, as leaders closed the Tasmanian East Coast and sailed across Storm Bay to the tricky tidal Derwent River finish in capital Hobart, proved a little too variable, and she finished the next night in 1 day, 11 hours 56 minutes, less than three hours adrift of her 2017 elapsed time.
Andoo Comanche came within a few hours of the race record
LawConnect was again second after showing a promising burst of speed, Black Jack came third and Hamilton Island Wild Oats was fourth following another time-consuming gear problem, requiring a mainsail seam to be restitched.
Media-grabbing maxis aside, the race for IRC handicap honours is meant to be the pinnacle of the event, and here a whole 12-strong fleet of honed TP52s were ideally suited to the breezy conditions. ORCi classes are hotly contested too.
Early money was on the Botin 52 Caro, launched in 2021 and flying the New Zealand flag, and on American-entered TP52 Warrior Won, but in the hunt was Celestial, which could have won in 2021 had it not been for a complex radio schedule and time allowance protest hearing, as well as the experienced Matt Donald and Chris Townsend in their TP52 Gweilo.\
The TP52 Gweilo campaigned by Matt Donald and Chris Townsend.
These two met and became boat partners in Hong Kong, hence the name, which variously translates from colloquial Cantonese as white ghost or foreign devil, stemming from British colonial days on the China Coast.
Matt Allen, who took out his third Rolex Sydney-Hobart handicap win in 2021 in the TP52 Ichi Ban, was resting on his laurels, so the field was wide open, and the top four literally match-raced their way to Hobart.
In the endgame Celestial, campaigned by Sydney vet and CYCA Vice Commodore Sam Haynes, triumphed over her rivals, with Gweilo a close second.
Gweilo co-owners Donald and Townsend became boat partners after sojourns in Hong Kong
Hong Kong owners have always been closely involved in the Rolex Sydney Hobart. Deacons solicitor Bill Turnbull won in Ceil 111 in 1973, and Karl Kwok repeated the triumph in the Farr 49 Beau Geste in 1997, the year Hong Kong was handed back to China.
Keith Jacobs, Neil Pryde and Warwick Miller starred in the associated five-race Southern Cross Cup in the interim, and Karl Kwok has been pressing since, particularly in his Botin 80 Beau Geste, which has lately sailed as Stefan Racing.
Katie Phillips, daughter of former RHKYC Commodore Mike Phillips, who passed away during the year, was cheering for Cameron Whitford on the Victoria Logan-skippered Sydney 39 Huntress, but this was one of nine casualties caused by breakages in the strong conditions, or rudders snapped by sunfish.
Geoff Hill’s Santa Cruz 72 Antipodes
Caught up in the chaos that ensued was amiable merchant banker and company director Geoff Hill, whose Santa Cruz 72 Antipodes was the only official Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club entrant in the 2022 Rolex Sydney Hobart.
Hill moved to Hong Kong in 2005, and after successfully campaigning a Lyons 49 and TP52 called Strewth in many Asian regattas, embarked on his Antipodes sojourn, which has seen his yachts take silverware in China Sea, Hong Kong-Vietnam, Raja Muda, King’s Cup and even Darwin-Dili and Darwin-Ambon Races.
For this outing he had the renowned Subic Bay-based Alan “Guilty” Tillyer aboard as Yachtmaster, three Filipino professional yachtsmen in Angle Balladares, Oli Cornelio and Roger Segovia, Cathay Pacific pilot and fellow RHKYC member Craig Millar, Briton Guy “Nipper” Salter who has sailed for many years in Hong Kong, and other Antipodes regulars such as Ralph Carlier, Grant Chessell, Jarod Sallis and Clyde Freeman. Tactician Bradshaw Kellett, a 30-plus-years Sydney Hobart veteran, stepped aboard before the start.
Geoff Hill (middle row, fifth left) with the Antipodes crew
“The race was in three parts”, Hill said later. “The start was very messy. We got run down by the maxis, but made it out of Sydney Harbour in one piece.
“Fantastic 30-hour run at 14 knots average. Until we hit a sunfish at 20 knots, but happily no serious damage. Then we got clobbered in Bass Strait with 30 knots plus, and blew out the principal spinnaker.
“So under a jib until near Tasman Island, when the southerly squall hit, and as you can see from photos we had 40 knots going across Storm Bay to the Derwent. But we’re happy with 2 days 6 hours, and 22nd across the line was fine. Now off to the Shipwright Arms”.
In Hobart a tradition exists called the QLD, an acronym not for Queensland but for the Quiet Little Drink at the end of a Rolex Sydney Hobart, which somewhat belies its name.
Handicap winner Celestial, approaching Tasman Island and Storm Bay near the finish
Chas from Tas, the legendary yacht delivery skipper, is still going strong, and was taking Antipodes back north. Few people know his real name, Charles Blundell. The second book of his “memoirs” is long awaited.
Phil Turner, who wagers bets in games of chance, and is a regular in Southeast Asia, mostly in Thailand, won the Rolex Sydney-Hobart in 2018 in his Reichel-Pugh 66 Alive. This year he was seventh across the line, and a highly commendable 2nd in the top IRC division.
Twenty RSHYR entries were two-handers. This fleet has built up since the daunting Melbourne Osaka Two-Handed Races of decades past. Last outing they were not eligible for Sydney-Hobart handicap awards because they use sailing aids banned to other competitors.
This year they were included, but didn’t figure in the results. The jury remains out. Mistral, a Lombard 34 sailed by Rupert Henry and Greg O’Shea, was the class winner, from Sun Fast Racing with Lee Condell, whom many Asian sailors will recall, aboard, and third was Pacman.
Rolex Australia’s Benoit Falletti (left) presents a Rolex Oyster to line honours winner John Winning Jr, skipper-charterer of Andoo Comanche, as his dad John Winning Sr holds the JH Illingworth Trophy
Geoff Hill says he will likely sail this year’s Rolex China Sea Race, now a 565 nm event from Hong Kong to Subic Bay in the Philippines, but was unsure at year’s end of his steed.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the CSR had nearly 100 entries, attracting renowned Australian, European, South African and American maxi yachts, but numbers reduced when a rival China Coast Cup was started in the 1990s, with sponsors transferred to that event.
The Rolex CSR remains, however, a quite challenging bluewater classic, across an open sea. Due to covid delays, this will be the first odd-years start since the inception of the biennial race in 1962.