The 1998 edition of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race was an international tragedy.
The 1998 edition of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race was an international tragedy.

‘There’s a bomb about to go off’

The 1998 Sydney to Hobart brought the race into news headlines worldwide for the worst possible reason. It was a maritime tragedy of horrendous proportions.

There had been a widely held belief, since the first race in 1945, that the classic had seen the complete range of weather conditions that could be.

Still, given the unpredictable nature of Bass Strait and the Tasman Sea, many seasoned sailors believed that the worst weather might not yet have been seen; that one day the ultimate storm and the Hobart race might intersect. And that is what happened in 1998.

WARNING: 'THERE'S A BOMB ABOUT TO GO OFF'

At the compulsory pre-race weather briefing that skippers and senior crew members attended 48 hours before the start of the 1998 race, the Bureau of Meteorology representative declared that it was difficult to provide an accurate forecast due to the unstable nature of the developing weather pattern.

However, it was almost certain the fleet would be confronted by a storm out of the south during the first night at sea. In addition, there was a low-pressure system lurking off the New South Wales coast that might move south.

Internationally acclaimed yachting meteorologist Roger 'Clouds' Badham, was alarmed by the weather models unfolding on his computer screens. The pattern developing over Tasmania was turning ugly; the low-pressure system had become a very worrying storm of near cyclonic proportions.

Under race rules, competing crews were not permitted to receive any outside assistance regarding the weather during the race, so Badham, knowing he couldn't issue any warning to his clients competing in the race, decided the next best thing to do was to contact a reporter who was covering the race.

"I have just looked at all the latest weather models and there is only one thing I can say: If I were on half those yachts out there this afternoon, I'd be taking my spinnaker down right now and turning back to Sydney," Badham said.

"They are going to get hammered. There's a bomb about to go off in Bass Strait. A low is going to develop and intensify. They are going to get 50 knots, maybe more, and huge seas."

Sailors were swamped by giant waves.
Sailors were swamped by giant waves.

His prediction was that the worst of the weather would strike the majority of the fleet at around 2.30pm the following day, and this would prove to be correct. Unfortunately, under the existing race rules, the competing yachts could not be warned of this development until the official weather forecast was issued at 10pm - 9 hours after the start.

By then many of the yachts would be 100 nautical miles (nm) south of Sydney or more. When this official forecast was broadcast to the race yachts that night some crews elected to retire immediately and head home, but for many others it was considered to be too late to turn back, so they pressed on.

WORST FEARS REALISED: SIX SAILORS DEAD

By next morning, Badham's worst fears were realised. The weather station at Wilsons Promontory in Bass Strait was already reporting wind gusts of 92 knots.

Bringing additional drama to this already grim piece of information was the knowledge the confluence of the howling wind from the southwest and a fast-flowing southerly current was generating the worst imaginable conditions.

The most worrying feature was the magnitude and sheer might of the seas. By 2.30pm on December 27 the majority of the fleet was trapped by the storm, and as conditions deteriorated SOS calls started to fill the radio waves.

The response from AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) based in Canberra was immediate. The emergency rescue procedure it was about to co-ordinate would, within 48 hours, become Australia's largest peacetime search and rescue effort.

Sayonara heads down the east coast of Tasmania.
Sayonara heads down the east coast of Tasmania.

It involved the Royal Australian Navy, the Police Air Wing, helicopter rescue services, media helicopters, light aircraft and private vessels.

For the next 48 hours across Australia and around the world the developing disaster became headline news; it was a rescue mission that was almost beyond comprehension, one that covered hundreds of square kilometres of savage ocean off the southeast corner of the Australian mainland.

Tragically, by the time the storm began to abate, six sailors had perished Phillip Charles Skeggs, Bruce Raymond Guy (Business Post Naiad), John Dean, James Lawler, Michael Bannister (Winston Churchill) and Glyn Charles (Sword of Orion).

Another 55 were winched to safety, some in remarkable circumstances. Of the fleet of 115 starters, five yachts sank and only 44 reached Hobart. Many of the rescue stories reflected the sheer bravery of the rescuers, or how a miraculous level of good fortune led to sailors surviving the heinous conditions.

Many yacht owners and crews decided that, regardless of the cyclonic weather, they were trapped by it whether racing or retired, so opted to press on south towards Hobart, albeit with great caution.

WINNER: 'I'LL NEVER DO IT AGAIN'

Sayonara owner-skipper Larry Ellison kisses girlfriend Melanie Craft after claiming line honours.
Sayonara owner-skipper Larry Ellison kisses girlfriend Melanie Craft after claiming line honours.

It was around 8am on December 29 when Sayonara, then the world's greatest maxi yacht, owned by American billionaire businessman and co-founder of Oracle Corporation, Larry Ellison, came into view from the finish line on Castray Esplanade.

As expected in these circumstances, there was no great level of excitement being exhibited aboard the yacht or onshore. The scene was solemn. Hobart was a city in mourning.

Neither the 5000 plus people there to welcome the line honours winner, nor Sayonara's crew knew quite how to handle the situation when the yacht crossed the line and docked. There was a distinct air of discomfort.

The media throng descended on a sorrowful Ellison as he stepped onto the dock, but instead of taking questions he made a declaration.

"Never again. Not if I live to be 1000 years old, will I do a Hobart race," Ellison said. "This is not what it's supposed to be about. Difficult yes, dangerous no, life threatening - definitely not … It was by far the toughest race I've ever done in my life. It was horrible. The crew work was inspirational.

"Very bad things could have happened to us out there and these guys got us through. Guys were knocked down but they just kept getting up and back to their jobs. They kept doing what had to be done to keep the boat in one piece - and keep all of us alive. It was truly extraordinary. Anyone who signs up for this race expects a difficult race but no one expects a dangerous race. The seas were enormous and the wind made sounds I've never heard before."

Rupert Murdoch's son, Lachlan, who was a member of Sayonara's crew, was similarly contemplative: "I think a lot of the guys in this crew have very strong and mixed feelings about even finishing in this race at all. You needed to be out there to know just how bad it was. If you imagine any disaster movie you have seen before, you have to double it or treble it."

Lachlan Murdoch reads the newspaper on arrival at Constitution Dock aboard yacht Sayonara.
Lachlan Murdoch reads the newspaper on arrival at Constitution Dock aboard yacht Sayonara.

Following a coronial inquiry conducted by the New South Wales government, and an extensive investigation by CYCA officials, considerable changes were made in relation to the conduct of the race, crew and yacht eligibility, race safety equipment and search and rescue techniques.

As a result of these findings many changes were introduced to the sport, while the magnitude of the rescue effort led to improvements in search and rescue procedures nationally and internationally.

The cover of Rob Mundle's new book.
The cover of Rob Mundle's new book.

This is an edited extract from The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race (ABC Books 2019), Rob Mundle, reproduced with permission of HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Ltd. Available in all good bookstores and online now.


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