The 435 nautical mile blue-water classic Melbourne to Hobart Yacht Race was the brainchild of Stan Gibson from Hobson’s Bay Yacht Club in Melbourne and Dr Joe Cannon at Derwent Sailing Squadron in Hobart. It was intended as a challenging alternative for Victorian and South Australian sailors who wanted to be in Hobart for the celebrations but did not want the logistical hassle of getting the yacht up to Sydney to compete in the Sydney to Hobart.
The then fearsome reputation of the west coast of Tasmania ensured that the proposed new race was viewed with scepticism by the local yachting community. However, Stan Gibson’s analysis of the summer weather patterns along the west coast overcame the critics and Donald Trescowthick (subsequently Sir Donald KBE) sponsored the event and donated the Heemskerk Perpetual trophy.
The inaugural 1972 race attracted 15 entries and support for the race increased steadily over the next 20 years with typical fleet sizes of 20 – 30 boats throughout the 1980’s. The fleet record of 65 yachts was reached in 1996 .
By today’s standards, the race was a “big budget affair” in its early years with financial support from both the Victorian and Tasmanian Governments and commercial sponsors - and this was reflected on trophy night. In additional to the Perpetual trophies, still awarded today, in the 1970’s prizes included gold and silver ingots and sovereigns. In 1976 these were upgraded to include “gold plated solid silver ingots hand painted by Pro Hart” for each major place getter. The three main ingots were approximately the same length as a house brick and the painting was described by Pro Hart as the most detailed work he had ever done. The NOR at the time valued these trophies at $25,000 - including $1,500 for each of the 4 Pro Hart paintings. They got that wrong!
Now in its 47th year, the race has a proven and enviable safety record. More than 900 yachts and some 7000 crew have competed in the event without major incident. There is no doubt that the weather can be difficult and there are numerous accounts in the race history strong 50 – 60 knot (100 kph) winds for periods of 3 or 4 hours associated with passing fronts. In these conditions its not easy and the Westcoaster safety record is a tribute to the careful preparation of the crews and to the careful race management and training programs put in place by the ORCV.
In most years, race retirements are limited to only 1 or 2 boats but the record shows 4 years when one third or more of the fleet have not been able to finish the race – and this highlights a different aspect to the challenge. In both 1981 when 12 of the 30 starters retired and 2004 when only 4 boats finished, the problem was lack of wind. In the third year, 1998, eight of the 25 entrants elected not to start, doubtless influenced by the difficulties experienced by the Sydney Hobart Fleet that year but 15 of the 17 starters successfully finished the race.
Then came 1999, undoubtedly the most challenging race, with Nigel Jones and his crew on “Cadabarra 7” being the only boat to finish out of 20 yachts. The race started in light 10 – 15kn conditions but with an approaching low-pressure system promising difficult conditions. Cadibarra took the unusual decision to sail to the west of King Island, thus avoiding rough conditions which could be expected in the gap between King Island and NW Tasmania. By morning Cadabarra was west of King Island, the wind had shifted south and strengthened to 25 Kn. The wind continued to strengthen throughout the day – 30kn by nightfall with 3m seas, gusting to 45 kn by the morning of day 3. With wind and 5m seas “bang on the nose” progress was slow and remained uncomfortable until the next morning. After 40 hours sailing, the worst of the low-pressure system had passed, the wind abated and shifted west. South West Cape (around 100 nm from the finish) was rounded by lunch time, first hot meal for a while, spinnaker up and a dash across the bottom of Tasmania at 10 – 18 knots. The finish - 2am on Day 4 after 3 days ands 14 hours. Not dangerous but challenging. That’s the Westcoaster.
The honour of being the first two crewed yachtsman to complete the race was Simon Kellett’s “ bobby Dazzler who finished 20th overall in 1990 out of a fleet of 36. Entries since then have been spasmodic but autohelm and navigation technology is improving and two-handed racing in the Westcoaster is actively encouraged. There were 10 “double handed” entries in the 2017 Westcoaster which is a qualifying event for the Melbourne – Osaka Race and they performed well. Magique (Maurice Contessi & Martin Vaughan) finished second overall in AMS taking out the Sovereign Series against the fully crewed fleet and Kraken (Todd Giraudo & David White) second in IRC.