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 50th year, the race has a proven and enviable safety record. More than 950 yachts and some 7500 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. 2019 saw all the fleet struggling to find wind and arriving into Hobart a day later than expected. In 2021, 77% of the fleet dared to follow the wind, taking the longer route West of King Island with Matt Fahey on Faster Forward brave enough to dream and believe "West was Best" and crowned the overall winner.
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.
History of the Westcoaster Snapshot
How it all Started
The first ocean race staged in Australia was sailed between Geelong, Victoria and Stanley, Tasmania in 1907 with yachts competing for the Rudder Cup trophy. In 1971 it was time to run a new ocean race. ORCV Commodore, Stan Gibson, had long held the desire to organize a Melbourne to Hobart yacht race. Gibson believed that such a race would be well supported by not only yachtsmen from Victoria but from all States.
Gibson discussed the matter with his ORCV Committee and received a lukewarm response. However, Gibson continued with his desire, but could not find financial support for his idea. The ORCV at the time had no funds and was not too interested in Gibson's idea.
Gibson enlisted the aid of fellow yachtsmen, Peter Riddle and together they approached Donald Trescowthick who saw the immediate benefits and prestige to the Victorian yachting community. Supporting the Melbourne to Hobart Race were ORCV Honorary Secretary, Ron Elliott and his wife Peg.
Trescowthick immediately set up the Melbourne to Hobart Yacht Race Committee and Gibson arranged for the ORCV, along with the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron, to take care of the technical sailing matters in Victoria, with the Derwent Sailing Squadron looking after the Hobart end.
The promotion and management of Melbourne to Hobart were entirely in the hands of Trescowthick and his Committee. The public relations for the race were handled by Richard Sexton who had previously managed the public relations for General Motors Holden.
When the public announcement of this new Blue Water Classic was launched, there was considerable unfavourable press and comments such as "Don't go west young man you could be putting your life on the line. In the Interests of safety. The Melbourne to Hobart Race should be abandoned" were made. It was all of this negative publicity that caused Trescowthick to coin the phrase "The boys go down the east, and the men go down the west"
Initially, the Race Committee decided the race should commence at Queenscliff and arranged for the Victorian State Governor, Sir Henry Winneke to start the Race.
The Race Committee had many meetings to discuss what should happen to ensure the ongoing success of the race. At Trescowthick's suggestion, the Sovereign Series of Races was born comprising Cock of the Bay, Melbourne to Hobart and King of the Derwent races.
Trescowthick's companies, Signet Insurance Group, Charles Davis Limited, Co-operative Motors Limited and Swann Insurance Limited were sponsors. These companies invested more than $2m in sponsorship of the Sovereign Series during the ensuing years.
The Sovereign Series was managed by the Race Committee in an effort to generate interest in Melbourne to Hobart. It was promoted as an equal to the Southern Cross Series which was raced bi-annually in Sydney.
Trescowthick's Race Committee negotiated with Victorian and Tasmanian Governments and gained financial support from each during the formative years. After two starts at Queenscliff, the newly formed Sovereign Series Committee (the Melbourne to Hobart Committee having changed its name to reflect the three races) decided to move the start from Queenscliff to Portsea, which had an immediate positive effect on increasing spectators on land, on water and in the air.
Over the coming month's newsletters, we will continue the history with a summary of each race...
THE FIRST RACE 1972
The race entry fee was $20 and attracted 15 intrepid entries. In the first year, the race started off Queenscliff on Boxing Day at 1.30 pm with a course via King Island and South West Cape to a finish line in Hobart’s Derwent River, off the Wrest Point Casino.
With fresh breezes blowing in Bass Strait, the 15 yachts made their way out through Port Phillip Heads with every boat passing King Island to the West. Peter Riddle’s Warwick Hood designed 41-footer ‘’Mary Blair went on to take line honours and hold the Abel Tasman Trophy in the very quick time of 2 days, 16 hours, 19 min and 7 seconds. John Marion’s Phillip Rhodes designed 30-footer, ‘Ailsa’ won the Heemskerk Trophy for the fastest boat on IOR Mark III corrected time
Mary Blair setting a cracking pace on the 1972 inaugural_Melbourne_to_Hobart Pic ORCV
One very lucky boat to complete was Leon O'Donoghue's Swanson 27 ‘Lady Hamilton’ which needed a 6-inch skillet of plywood glued to its skeg to enable it to meet the minimum 24-foot waterline length race entry requirement. In its crew, with 26 offshore races to his credit, was Royal Brighton Yachtsman, Alan Collins, who in later years went on to win the race multiple times.
Worthy of mention was Geoff Wood’s famous 55-foot 3 masted schooner ‘Ile Ola’, with a piano onboard. During her 34 years of racing and cruising, Ile Ola logged no fewer than an astounding 510,000 sea miles and competed in 15 Melbourne to Hobart races.
Ile Ola out through the heads with piano onboard
1973 - 1979
1973 race saw a fleet of eight yachts in the race. Bill Croft’s Tawarri II won line honours, nearly two days slower than Mary Blair’s record time, with Royal Geelong’s Ron Spence’s Appaloosa winning on handicap. Melbourne to Hobart race founder and ORCV member Stan Gibson’s Four Winds II came fourth. In 1974 weather conditions better suited the race fleet and John Williams’s Minna defeated Mary Blair across the line to take line honours, some four hours slower than the race record. Reg Hare’s 37-foot Alan Payne designed Tasman Seabird, Pagan won on handicap. One of many ocean races won by Alan Payne designed yachts of the years. Worthy of note is that 40 years later, Pagan won the 2014 Brisbane to Gladstone race.
Pagen 2014 Brisbane to Gladstone Race
Colour television had just been launched in Australia, and in 1975 Dr Tony Fisher’s maxi the 72-foot Joe Adams designed ferro cement, Helsal (named after Fisher's wife Helen and daughter Sally) made its first appearance in a bid to smash the race record. Already holding the 1973 Sydney to Hobart race record, Fisher wanted both. With mostly light winds during the race, meant the maxi was almost half a day slower than the race record. Bob Mercer’s Carter 38 Rovama won on handicap. Helsal returned in 1976 for another shot at claiming the race record. Despite some halyard issues, Helsal went on to take line honours in a record time of 2 days, 7 hours, 18 mins and 51 seconds, nearly nine hours faster than previous record. Jock Sturrock’s former Alan Payne 42-foot Monsoon skippered by John Attwood won on handicap.
Dr Tony Fisher’s maxi the 72-foot Joe Adams designed ferro cement, Helsal (named after Fisher's wife Helen and daughter Sally)
The Searle family began a new chapter in the race’s history book in 1977. Wiley Jim Searle and his son Neil scored the first of the family’s record making four back-to-back wins (1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980) on their superbly prepared white and green Farr 1104 Hot Prospect. Line honours was won by Guy Ellis’s 54-foot steel Buchannan, Anaconda, some 13 hours slower than race record time.
Westcoaster 1977 Trophy Presentation Skippers Guy Ellis (Anaconda) and Jim Searle (Hot Prospect) with Pro Hart Ingot
Neil Batt’s Sandra scored Tasmania’s first line honours win in 1978 in a time of 2 days, 12 hours, and 21 minutes and in 1979 Alan Collin’s new S&S 34 Eastern Morning entered the race for the time. Over the next ten years Collin’s won the race twice.
Jim Searle returned in 1980 with a new boat Relentless and it didn’t let him down in his quest for a record breaking fourth successive Melbourne to Hobart handicap win. Line honours went to South Australia’s Jim Howell on Nimrod II in a time of 2 days 11 hours 46 mins.
1981 was the 10th anniversary of Melbourne to Hobart. After a decade with no major disasters, a tribute to the race's safety standards and competency of the crews, the Westcoaster emerged from a cloud of controversy as to whether it should ever have been sailed, proving that it could be, and safely. For the first time, Arbitrary Division boats were allowed to race and 11 entries increased entries to a record 33 boats.
Joe Becher’s former Admirals Cupper Apollo II made its race debut, winning IOR handicap division by more than 90 mins with Edie Wall-Smith's Farr42 Rimfire second. Ken King’s new Steinan 40 Noeleen III made its race debut finishing 3rd in IOR Division. Brian Kosts’s 36’ steel cruiser Ebee III won Arbitrary Division and Max Gill’s Holland 48 Isle of Luing took line honours in 3 days 1 hour 13 mins.
1982 IOR Division honours went to Tasmania this year when Hobart based Bill Escott’s S&S 34 Solandra won both line honours and the Arbitrary Division. Meanwhile the Sovereign Series Chairman/Sponsor Sir Donald Trescowthick’s Peterson 40 Kiknos with Neal Searle at the helm, notched a fourth placing in IOR Division.
1983 saw South Australia producing its first handicap winner when James Cowell’s S&S 34 Morning Hustler won the IOR Divion by 65 minutes on corrected time from Alan Collins S&S 34 Eastern Morning David Bowman’s Farr 11.6 Freelance took line honours in 3 days and 7 mins, just 2 mins ahead of Robin Hewett’s Lexcen 49 Yoko. In Arbitrary Division John Edwards UFO 34 Ninda took the trophy against a strong fleet of 16 entries.
James Cowell owner/skipper Morning Hustler winner 1983 with crew and Pro Hart painted silver ignot. Photo credit Cowell family
In the 1984 race Gary Graham’s 60-foot Royal Geelong based steel sloop Quasimodo won line honours in 3 days 6 hours 27 mins 59 sec., whilst Alan Collins after a 7th and 2nd in previous years broke through for his first IOR Division win on S&S 34 Eastern Morning defeating Ken Page’s S&S 39 Mark Twain. One of the legends of the race, Mac Stokoe from Sandringham Yacht Club sailed his Duncanson 35 Milluna to victory in the Arbitrary Division with Peter McLaren's Adams 12 Lady Bay runner up
The 40 boats in 1985 started with gale force winds as they battled their way across Bass Strait and past King Island. John Lake’s magnificent new Steinman 52-foot Flying Colours from Sandringham Yacht Club made its race debut winning line honours in 2 days 14 hours and 54 mins. Hobart’s Reg Escott sailed home to score his second IOR Division win in three years with his S&S 34 Solandra defeating Graham Aldersea’s Steinman 30 Ruzulu.
Tasmanians won their first ever handicap double in the race, when Drew Murray’s all steel Bollard 36 Trident III (former Ebee III winner Arbitrary Div in 1981) with a hot shot crew of state champion dingy sailors won performance handicap by three and a half hours, defeating Graeme Alexander’s Mottle 33, Thermopylae.
1986 was Flying Colours big year, which saw the quick 52-footer pick up a gale along Tasmania's south coast, surfing home in the new record time of 2 days 3 hours 19 mins 53 sec. Flying Colours slashed almost 4 hours off Helsal’s 1976 record, which had stood for 10 years. Flying Colours also won performance handicap by 3 hours from Dr G Humphrey’s Valkyrie. In IOR Division Peter Gourlay’s Dubois 40 Seaulater won.
In 1987 the IOR Division attracted just three entries, with Eddie Wall-Smith Frers 43 Challenge 3 winning on handicap. The Tasmanians continued their winning streak with Arthur Budd’s bright red hulled Van de Stadt 43 Trumpcard. Line honours went to Flying Colours for the third year in a row.
1988, in the first year of the Sun Smart sponsorship, John Lakes Flying Colours carried the sponsors logo and was line honours winner for a record fourth time in succession.
The South Australians came in force in 1989, when Keith Flint entered the Adams 66 Helsal 1 with his eyes on the line honours record. However, the winds were not quite right and Helsal had to be content with a line honours win in the time of 2 days 12 hours 12 min 3 sec, some 9 hours outside Flying Colours race record time.
In the last year and IOR Division was included in the race, Rob Kenyon steered Ray Abikhairs Farr 37 Hummingbird to victory. Alan Collins won the Channel Handicap in his newly acquired Cavalier 37 By Order of the Secretary and Gary Brice skippered the Navy’s SIII Scarborough of Cerebus to a Performance Handicap victory.
THE 1990'S and FIRST 25 YEARS.
The 1990 race will be remembered as the year Grant Wharington’s Wild Thing was captured on film wave dancing on the Southern Ocean by Tasmania’s world-renowned yachting photographer, Richard Bennett.
Wild Thing on her way to Line Honour victory in the 1990 Melbourne to Hobart race. Photo Richard Bennett
Wild Thing was pictured three quarters out of the water surfing down 10-meter waves at speeds in excess of 30 knots, as the Inglis 47 sped on its way to setting a new race record of 2 days 20 minutes and 19 seconds. Bennett’s image was voted Yachting International picture of the year, and it was published in over 60 magazines and books worldwide!
Nigel Jones’ Farr 40 Paladin won Channel Handicap division with style and Richmond Edmunds gave Tasmania its 5th Heemskerk Trophy win in 19 years with his Adams 13 Risky Business.
With the Melbourne to Osaka double handed race looming the following March, Simon Kellett with co skipper Chris Pullin raced the 12.4-meter Swanson Bobby Dazzler to victory in the Westcoater. The year of first Double Handed race entrant.
1991 was when former ORCV Commodore Robin Hewitt’s Lexcen Yoko celebrated its 10th Westcoaster race by notching up its first handicap win in the very competitive Performance Handicap division. Yoko defeated Grant Wharington’s line honours winner Wild Thing by 4 hours and 30 minutes on corrected time.
Robin Hewitt, Trevor Huggard and the crew were so excited they organized a 'Big Day Out’ party for over 250 colleagues on a nearby landing barge to celebrate the occasion
This was also the year for the first running of the new IMS division, the Royal Geelong Yacht Club based Adams 12 Friction skippered by Chris Laker won the converted Heemskerk Trophy
For the 1992 race, Lactos Cheese was the sponsor. All eyes were on Robert Hopcraft’s Adams 52 Animal Farm which after losing its mast soon after the start the year before, was back larger than life and out to get rid of its “Second to Hobart Bridesmaid” tag. Soon after clearing the heads, Animal Farm shot away to lead the fleet down the West Coat of Tasmania. By the Derwent River, after a record-breaking run from South West Cape, Animal Farm held a 15-mile lead over Flying Colours and looked odds on for its maiden win. But in the last few miles, it got caught in the windless “Taroona Hole’ and sat helplessly as Flying Colours caught up, and passed them, to not only win Line Honours but set a new race record time of 2 days 15 mins 7 seconds, 15 minutes faster than Wild Thing’s race record!
In Performance Handicap Division, Richard Edmund’s Adam 13 Risky Business and in IMS Division John Saul’s 12 m sloop Quit for Life brought home two winners in one year for Tasmania.
Sadly, 1992 was to be the last year that Geoff Woods was able to sail Ile Ola to Hobart. Two years later when Geoff died in Geelong, the Westcoaster, and Yachting Victoria lost a true legend.
1993 was quite the year. If winning yacht races is all about evoking high levels of emotion, 1993 Melbourne to Hobart IMS winner certainly produced a heart wrenching story. Well known Royal Brighton Yacht Club skipper Allan Collins, recovering from a throat cancer operation, was unable to compete. However, his crew, led by co-owner Rex Billing raced the Cavalier 37 By Order of the Secretary flat out down the West Coast dedicating their fine win to their absent and ailing skipper back in Melbourne.
Brighton Star with Mewstone Rock in the background. Photo Richard Bennett
In line honours battle, Royal Brighton’s David Gotze sailing his Davidson Murray 52 Prime Example celebrated his recent marriage, and his first Ocean Race, by being the first to Hobart and greeting his new wife in 2 days 22 hours and 8 mins. This was the first ocean race for David, and it was where his passion for ocean racing and his love of the Melbourne to Hobart race was born.
The Navy's Scarborough of Cerberus skippered by Ken Moody scorched home to win the Performance Handicap by 62 minutes. Sadly, three weeks later at the Western Port Marina in Hastings, the yachting world was shocked when Ken Moody tragically lost his life after he was accidentally electrocuted whilst building the ‘boat of his dreams’. Later in June, Melbourne to Hobart sailors bid farewell to another great character and loyal supporter of ORCV when Alan Collins lost his battle with cancer.
1994 race saw Line Honours and Double Handed trophy won in spectacular fashion by Simon Kellett's Inglis 47 entry Fast Forward. Simon was lucky to reach Hobart after he escaped injury when trapped upside down in a bosuns chair at the top of Fast Forward's mast in a gale off South West Cape!
In Performance Handicap, Rear Admiral Peter Briggs brought home the previous year's winning Navy entry Scarborough of Cerberus to take first prize.
1995 was Tasmania’s turn to dominate results again with Hobart’s John Saul traded up to the Inglis 47 Tasmap, which more than 200 spectator boats at the start off Portsea saw win the converted Port Phillip Pilots Trophy race to the Heads, before it went on to score an all the way convincing Line Honours win in 2 days 20 hours and 27 mins.
1996 was the 25th anniversary of the race and was contested by a race record size fleet of 74 yachts. A great achievement for a race that they said would never be held! It was a fast race with a new race record set by Peter Hansen’s PL Lease Management of 1 day 23 hours 15 mins and 38 seconds. Taking more than 50 minutes off the previous race record. Standing up to receive the Heemskerk Trophy (holding his new born baby) was skipper and owner of Brighton Star, David Gotze.
“The Westcoaster was my first ocean race and will always be my favorite ocean race...... it's a very special race, I love the race,” (David Gotze, August 2022)
A special race for Brighton Star skipper David Gotze winning the 25th Melbourne to Hobart race in 1990. Photo Richard Bennett