Big Wave Riders Fitzroy Yachts Solo Trans Tasman Challenge

Easter 2010


Having entered the Fitzroy Yachts Solo Trans-Tasman Challenge again after winning the 2007 race, everyone thought I was still mad, but it is such a great race. It's always a huge challenge racing across the Tasman solo, especially in a multihull. 

THE LAST 12 MONTHS I had been busy working as project manager on Jessica Watson’s voyage and helping my cousin Steven Arms finishing off Nitro, a Chamberlin 10.66m catamaran in New Zealand as well as finishing off Folie A Deux, another Chamberlin 14m catamaran in Tasmania.

It was a hectic two weeks of preparation to get ready to race offshore. The weather wasn’t kind to us at all but we managed to get the boat stripped out, antifouled and ready to go. A big thanks to Roger, Julie, Pat, Judy and Dave who gave us a hand and also to Bill for picking up the liferaft.  David of Lambourne Yacht Rigging completed a rig check, replaced LED tri colour light. My wife Suzanne and I departed Southport after Bob McDavitt from the NZ Met Service gave us the green light to go after cyclone Ului threatened to come down the Queensland coast and prevent us from leaving. In the end Cyclone Ului came ashore at Airlie Beach causing widespread damage.The ride across the ditch was fantastic with reaching conditions most of the way and we entered PortTaranaki, NZ at 2am in a gale, with a passage time of six days five hours from Southport, Queensland.

What a great week before race start day.  First the new sails from Fyfe Sails arrived on Saturday and they looked awesome. A quick test sail in 15-20kts and Big Wave Rider hit 13kts upwind and 21kts downwind.  Fitzroy Yachts hosted a barbecue on the Monday night followed by a tour of a nearly completed 50m super yacht Zefira, with a 59m mast. Tuesday night we had a civic reception at the mayor’s office.Wednesday saw a day of briefings on sea safety etc. The Solo Trans-Tasman Race dinner was held on Friday night – a bit of relaxing time and a chance to catch up with the other solo sailors along with some of the past competitors also turning up to watch the start.

Start day – Easter Sunday, first off was a final race briefing then customs clearance along with a last goodbye to friends and family. You can tell that this is no ordinary yacht race with all the sailors shaking hands and hugging each other (with the lady sailor’s that is) and wishing each other the best of luck. Everyone seemed a little bit nervous, even me, I just wanted to get on with it. Start time loomed and there was only a five knot north-easterly wind which soon died off to two knots so it was a bit of a drifter for the first four hours or so. Big Wave Rider managed to wriggle her way around the first turning mark in first place and slip away slowly.  Cousin Steve’s Nitro was the only boat to get close to me in the lighter winds of the early evening but as the south-easterly wind and swell built Big Wave Rider came into her own and blasted away into the night. The wind reached 28kts at times but was mostly 24-26kts.

On Monday morning the wind started changing to the east then north-east at 15-22kts and we were making good progress towards Mooloolaba. Big Wave Rider had already equalled her top speed which was reached on the Tasman crossing – 21.3kts sailing with three reefs in the main and the jib up. Tuesday morning dawned wet and wild which was then followed with head winds in the afternoon, just where we wanted to head. Later that night the wind started coming around to the south-west then reached 40kts+.  It was an exciting night reefing the main and the jib, getting thrown around on the foredeck and blasted by those waves.The winds dropped down to 20-30kts, and we were making good time towards Mooloolaba.The seas and wind had started to ease, so I pulled out the reefs as the night went on, to put the power on for some very fast sailing. I had full main and jib up and the boat speed was sitting on 10kts and surfing up to 18.21kts, with a top speed of the day being 22.8kts, all this while ‘Wilson’ the Simrad auto pilot was steering.

During one interview on the satellite phone I was asked by a NZ radio station “how do you sleep on a multihull”?  Well when I am sailing very fast I don’t sleep much and when it is rough not at all. I just cat-nap when I can while the seas are flatter and it is smooth sailing then I can get a bit more sleep. I treated this race as a sprint as it is only six to seven days long, not like Jessica who was sailing for over six months. Wednesday afternoon the wind lightens and continues to lighten throughout the night as well, not conditions for fast sailing but pleasant.

Thursday morning saw the wind pick up and some fast reaching, Big Wave Rider was flying along until about lunch time when the tack (where the sail attaches to the bowsprit) of the big reaching sail blew apart. Bugger, I thought, I now had a huge sail that I couldn’t roll away to get down.  So 30 minutes later after a big wrestling match on the front nets I got it down. By then the wind angle had changed so it was up with the jib and off again on a tight reach just smokin’ along.  Later that evening the wind changed to 30kts north-west, just where I was heading. Then a big rain squall that had been chasing me finely caught up with me. Thunder, lightning, pouring rain, the full works and that created havoc with the wind.

Daylight saw a change to the west-northwest about 10-15kts, still not great but sort of making some progress towards the finish line.The wind was meant to be south-westerly by then, but at least the sun was out and things were drying out.  Friday night saw the wind slowly dropping off and Saturday morning there wasn’t much of anything except some current against me, not going to make it in today I thought.

Saturday night the wind slowly started picking up, just enough to stop me going crazy. By early Sunday morning a nice north-east wind had picked up and we are off heading for the finish line. Looking forward to a hot shower, a cold beer (sorry Jess about the shower) and to see my wife Suzanne, all the family plus friends waiting at the finish line. It hadn’t

“the Tasman is forever changing its mood and is always out to challenge you”

been as easy as it looked to win this race again as I had pushed the boat hard in all conditions and you don’t get much sleep doing that.

Well what a last day ... with the wind up then down and changing direction all the time, I thought I could head straight to the finish, it was very frustrating. As I approached Cape Moreton, the wind started to bend me towards the finish. I was sailing along doing 10-12kts, and then I spotted a big storm near the finish line. BUGGER, Mooloolaba just disappeared and I started to get lots of rain as it passed in front of me, then it completely stuffed up the wind.  It was a real struggle to get over the line; the Tasman is forever changing its mood and is always out to challenge you.

There were lots of people waiting in the rain to welcome me in as I drifted over the line doing about one knot, not very spectacular. But what a reception with everyone lining the river wall shouting and cheering me in, then it was up the river to clear Customs and Quarantine at the Mooloolaba Marina. It was another big crowd containing my wife Suzanne along with family and friends who welcomed me in. Champagne, cold beer and a hot shower were first on the list along with a barbecue after many hugs and lots of shaking hands.

After talking to all of the solo sailors it seems that this race was one of the toughest with everybody breaking something or another. It was great to see the last and smallest boat in,Trish Lewis in Wishbone, a day before the prizegiving. I would have to say by the look of the sailors a week after they finished the after race celebrations are just about harder than the race itself; they all had a great time in Mooloolaba.

The prize-giving was held in the yacht club at the Mooloolaba Marina hosted by the Sunshine Coast Yacht Club. It was a great evening with a delicious dinner, a great crowd of nearly 200 people; they all had a great time. A highlight at the end of the evening was that Jessica Watson rang in for a position sked; it was such a good line so we used the PA system to get the crowd to ask her questions and she could answer them with every one hearing. With all the solo sailors there they could relate to what she was going through, a very special moment.

It takes a special kind of person to do a solo race (or maybe just crazy), any way it is a great race and should be kept going for another 40 years. Overall it was a great welcome and a nice feeling to be finally home. It was a very tough race with lots of changing weather patterns that included both windy and calm conditions. I pushed the boat and myself to the limit in this race and it has showed with an overall lead of 350nm plus and some 52.5 hours before the next boat arrived. It is the first time in 40 years since someone has won the race twice in the history of the race, let alone back to back wins. It’s also the second oldest solo race in the world and the only single handed offshore race in the Southern Hemisphere.

Race Time = 7days 6hours and 34mins Nautical miles sailed = 1,444