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Motoring / Yachts

Rolex Sydney Hobart: Super Maxis Survive in Tough Conditions

Hong Kong’s SHK Scallywag was among three 100ft super maxis who led the charge in the 76th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, with over half the entries unable to finish.

Jan 24, 2022 | By Andrea Francolini
SHK Scallywag with one reef had more control in increasingly strong southerlies, and drew away from rivals Black Jack and LawConnect. Image: Rolex

Hong Kong supermaxi yacht SHK Scallywag led the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race fleet imperiously out of Sydney Harbour, attracting primetime media coverage, then settled into a “battle of the giants” with two other 100ft super maxis, Black Jack and LawConnect.

Round one clearly went to SHK Scallywag’s skipper, David Witt, who opted to start, in a building southerly breeze, with one reef in the yacht’s mainsail, which gave him more control and a slight edge in speed.

All three maxis bunched at the leeward end of the first of four starting lines for the 88-strong fleet, and Witt’s tactic paid off. TV cameras constantly zoomed in on SHK Scallywag’s prominent Hong Kong — Asia’s World City bow artwork as the yacht drew inexorably ahead of her rivals, and led by several boat lengths at the first turning mark inside Sydney Heads. SHK stands for Sun Hung Kai, the long-established financial services and wealth management company of which Scallywag’s owner Lee Seng Huang is Executive Director.

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Skipper David Witt led around the first two marks. Image: Rolex

In Australia, however, the Malaysia-born businessman, who went to Sydney University, is better known for his role as Executive Director of Mulpha, which owns upmarket residential resorts such as Sanctuary Cove and Hayman Island, and has a portfolio of luxury hotels and other developments. Lee bought the former Dovell-designed Ragamuffin 100 from Syd Fischer in 2016, and as a much-modified Scallywag, she has since acquired copious trophies in Asia and the South Pacific.

Pitted again him was another property magnate, Peter Harburg, with his Reichel-Pugh 100 Black Jack. Well-known in Queensland real estate circles and for his series of ultra-competitive Black Jacks, named in honour of the F1 car racing driver Sir Jack Brabham, Harburg in 2021 chose to enter as a Monaco resident and member of the Yacht Club de Monaco.

Like Lee, he did not actually sail aboard — although both owners and especially Harburg have done so in past events — leaving regular skipper Mark Bradford to oversee a determined Black Jack campaign on the water, after previously winning most East Australian yacht racing accolades except Rolex Sydney Hobart line honours.

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Scallywag in the lead, but in the open Pacific, her J2 furler came dangerously adrift. Image: Rolex

Third in this high-stakes yachting troika was Sydney software guru Christian Beck, sailing his fourth Rolex Sydney Hobart as owner-skipper with sailing masters Tony Mutter and Chris Nicholson. Navigator Brad Kellett, a veteran of 28 editions, was his most experienced crew.

Beck had purchased the former Perpetual Loyal from Anthony Bell in 2017 and renamed the revolutionary Juan Kouyoumdjian-designed 100-footer InfoTrack. This time she was sailing as LawConnect, with an easily readable injunction, at the start, for viewers to contact their local lawyer. Another ongoing innovation is to give some of Beck’s employees a unique opportunity to sail aboard.

“I seriously don’t want to do that first day and night again. Ever!” said Beck when he finally stepped off the yacht in Hobart, so maybe his IT staff were not thanking him quite so profusely as in years past.

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Short, steep seas lasted for two nights, and forced half the fleet to withdraw. Image: Rolex

None of the three owners, nor the skippers, had taken line honours in a Rolex Sydney Hobart before, thus it was game on as the yachts, which included 17 two-handers sailing for the first time, left the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia in Rushcutters Bay on Boxing Day, 26 December, for their respective harbour starting lines.

The 2020 event was cancelled altogether due to Covid, and this 76th one saw two related withdrawals. Many mandatory test results had not been received when the starting gun sounded, but the Tasmanian Government allowed sailors to at least set off, with their status pending.

It was not ideal, and the weather forecast of strong southerlies for the first two days was even more ominous for anyone who has beaten into such wind-over-current seas before.

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Black Jack was entered by Queenslander Peter Harburg under Yacht Club de Monaco’s flag. Image: Rolex

For Asia-based readers, Deacons solicitor Bill Turnbull won the Rolex Sydney Hobart sailing for Hong Kong in Ceil 111 in 1973. Exactly 40 years ago we had a crack at the five-race Southern Cross Cup, entering a Hong Kong team centred on Keith Jacobs’ Bimblegumbie, plus Bill Steele’s chartered Battle Star and my co-chartered Impetuous, but had only modest results in “the Hobart”.

Later Karl Kwok became the first Chinese owner-skipper to win the Rolex Sydney Hobart, with mate Gavin Brady, in his Farr 49 Beau Geste, in that memorable year 1997, when China resumed control of Hong Kong. Beau Geste with Warwick Miller’s Exile and sailmaker Neil Pryde’s Hi Fidelity finally won the Southern Cross Cup that year.

This time, there was no chance that the 628nm race record of 1 day 9 hours 15 minutes 24 seconds set by the French-designed, American-built 100-footer Comanche in 2017 in heavy downwind surfing conditions, would be beaten.

black jack sailing
After one of the toughest races in recent decades, Black Jack edges across a relatively calm Storm Bay to take line honours. Image: Rolex

The southerlies kicked in with a vengeance, gusting 30 knots to begin. Scallywag rounded the second ocean mark still handily ahead, but then off famous Bondi Beach, with the bow pointing more towards Hobart, the J2 furling forestay came adrift, and its heavy black furler scythed alarmingly backwards and forwards across the yacht at head height as crew fought in breaking seas to stabilise it and the still-attached sail.

Scallywag had to head north before they could contain it, and get a storm jib up on an inner forestay. LawConnect and Black Jack sailed past, taking over the lead. It was the first of many trials and tribulations.

Said Witt later: “The crew did an amazing job. We probably don’t deserve to have a 100-footer arrive here in Hobart, given the condition that the boat ended up in after that first night.

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Breakages took their toll on LawConnect, as well as Scallywag. Image: Rolex

“We broke the J2 tack again, and those two times cost us 20 miles. Then we lost all the electronics, and had to sail three-quarters of the race with no instruments. In a yacht this size, that’s a pretty difficult thing to do. The last straw was the PLC — Programable Logic Controller — shutting down, so we couldn’t turn the winches. At one stage we were trying to hand-wind the top of the winches.”

Black Jack and LawConnect had their share of problems too, and as winds eased a little off the Tasmanian Coast, SHK Scallywag surprisingly fought back into second place. But Black Jack’s 10-15nm lead at this stage proved decisive in negotiating Storm Bay and the tricky tidal Derwent River to reach Hobart. She crossed the line at 1:37 am on December 29 to claim the JH Illingworth Challenge Cup — Illingworth won the first Rolex Sydney Hobart in Rani in 1944 — with an elapsed time of 2 days 12 hours 37 minutes 17 seconds.

LawConnect and SHK Scallywag crept in at dawn, three hours later, with Christian Beck’s boat 19 minutes ahead. Thus the line honours order was officially 1 Monaco, 2 Australia, 3 Hong Kong, although this international result somewhat belies the chaos caused by covid-induced inabilities to travel in the lead-up and running of the 76th race.

Scallywag finished third, 19 minutes behind LawConnect. Image: Rolex

Witt in particular was hard hit. He and wife Kim came down with Covid in the Philippines, and at other times he was unable to commute from home in Hong Kong to Australia where the boat was located. By the time this leading trio finished, nearly half the fleet had retired with equipment malfunctions, breakages and personal injuries accounting for most of the casualties. Among them was sometime Thailand and Tasmanian resident Phil Turner’s Reichel-Pugh 66 Alive.

Fourth across the line was the Botin 80 Stefan Racing, skippered by co-owner Grant Wharington, which used to be one of Karl Kwok’s Beau Gestes, and fifth came the Judel-Vrolijk 62 Whisper owned by David Griffith. This yacht was formerly called Chinese Whisper, a phrase denoting soft speaking in English, maybe in the fond hope that crew would refrain from shouting at each other.

An impressive 87 female crew entered the race. They included Lin Jiang Hui, hailing originally from the Min River in Sichuan, sailing double-handed with Jean-Charles Ledun, but this duo pulled out early, reportedly due to a hand injury.

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Hard on her heels was TP52 Ichi Ban, the eventual handicap winner and the third yacht to win three times on handicap. Image: Rolex

The debut of the Two-Handed Class caused some controversy over their permitted use of automatic pilots, and they were not eligible for the overall Tattersall Cup, the premier handicap trophy of the Rolex Sydney Hobart, although the CYCA has undertaken to review their status in time for the December 2022 event.

Handicap honours eventually went to former CYCA Commodore Matt Allen in his TP52 Ichi Ban — Number One in Japanese – and as he also won in 2017 and 2019, this elevated him to the august ranks of a triple champion.

The only others were boat builders Trygve and Magnus Halvorsen in Freya, a 39-foot wooden cutter, in 1963-64-65, and property developer Peter Kurts and his son Simon in the classic also-wooden Sparkman & Stephens 47 Love & War in 1974-78 and 2006.

Allen is well-known in Southeast Asia and East Asia, having raced in the region after crewing on another Rolex Sydney Hobart winner, the legendary Lou Abrahams’ Challenge, as a 17-year-old in 1983, and he sails with Irish pro Gordon Maguire, who helmed in high-profile Asian yacht campaigns years ago.

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Hard on her heels was TP52 Ichi Ban, the eventual handicap winner and the third yacht to win three times on handicap. Image: Rolex

His victory this year came after a protest against rival TP52 owner and CYCA director Sam Haynes in Celestial, which would otherwise have won.

The Race Committee also protested Celestial. The issue was that a Celestial crew’s personal emergency beacon had been activated, one of 13 such cases in the rough first two days of the race. Other yachts confirmed by radio — some taking 25 minutes to respond — that alarms had been set off accidentally as crew were thrown about the boats, below and above deck, and everyone was still aboard.

Celestial, however, couldn’t be contacted, despite a race requirement that a listening watch be kept at all times. Emergency air-sea rescue services, which did such a phenomenal job in the disastrous 1998 Rolex Sydney Hobart, when miraculously only six yachtsmen lost their lives, were on standby.

Ichi Ban, the nearest yacht, sailing seven miles away, was asked to contact Celestial by VHF, but attempts went unanswered. She then launched a white flare, followed some time later by a red distress flare, to try to attract attention, finally succeeding in making contact.

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The complex protest between the Race Committee and Celestial, and by Ichi Ban claiming time redress, lasted over four hours. Image: Rolex

In Hobart the sailing judges heard that Celestial had a noisy engine running to power electrics, and the navigator was trying to use a hand-held VHF feed on deck. The crew were exhausted after battling heavy seas, and they had been out of contact for only 90 minutes.

The panel comprised David Tillett (AUS), Rosemary Collins (AUS), John Doerr (GBR), Russel Green (NZL), Jamie Sutherland (NZL) and Philippe Mazard (FRA).

It was decided that a time penalty of 40 minutes would be imposed in lieu of disqualification for breaching the rule, and Ichi Ban was awarded a three-minute time deduction for her own efforts, which had distracted from racing the yacht. The panel later, on January 1, rejected a Request to Reopen hearings by Celestial.

“To win with Ichi Ban a third time is unbelievable”, said Allen. “It is always better, ideally, not to go into the protest room to decide matters. I’ve been involved in protests probably no more than six times in my lifetime.

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Ichi Ban owner-skipper Matt Allen with a specially engraved Rolex Oyster Perpetual Yacht Master, presented by Benoit Falletti of Rolex Australia. Image: Rolex

“But obviously the Race Committee also protested. Sailing has many rules to it, and they are important to abide by, especially the ones related to safety.”

Ten of the 17 starters in the inaugural Two-Handed Division made it to Hobart. Line honours went to the Tasmanian duo of Rob Gough and John Saul sailing Sidewinder, a 12m French design well set up for heavy ocean racing. Winner under several handicap systems, however, was the J99 Disko Trooper named after the lead character in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, one Disko Troop.

A couple of Laser sailors, Jules Hall and Jan ‘Clogs’ Scholten, were aboard, and they were sponsored by Scholten’s company Contender Sailcloth. Also with a podium finish was Crux, an S&S 34 crewed by Carlos Aydos and Peter Grayson.

Kialoa 11, one of the legendary American Jim Kilroy’s early steeds, took part in the 2021 Rolex Sydney Hobart, and last boat home was the 71-year-old Halvorsen 36 Solveig, which crossed the finish line at 08:42:11 on the morning of January 1.

This article first appeared on Yacht Style.

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