Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Seeing the yachties get ready for the big race

As children, my brother and I would drive down with dad in his car to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia every Christmas Day before lunch. It has long been a tradition starting on Boxing Day to run the Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race and on that day our family had our own tradition of having a big lunch with family and friends. But we would kick things off the day before, after the heady combined excitements of giving and receiving gifts was over.

Children always find Christmas Day exciting. We ran around happily, removing each present from under the tree that stood in a bucket of sand in the corner of the living room and handing it to the recipient whose name was written on the card affixed with sticky tape to the front. You felt a special, expectant pride when you thought you would burst, if it was a gift you yourself had bought and wrapped and labelled that you were handing over either with a shy smile (for mum) or a serious look of intense concentration (for dad). Most of the used wrapping paper would be stuffed into one of the upside-down cane tabourets that normally did service as seats, to be discarded later. Granny would flatten out sheets of the wrapping paper with her hands on her lap so that they could be used again.

But Boxing Day was just as important for dad, who had always been a sailor, and for us, who loved this rather austere man. He was a perfectionist and sailing let him indulge this aspect of his forceful character, especially when he went one-up on the Hobie Cat – a 14-foot-long fibreglass-and-aluminium catamaran – because he could control all elements of a severely circumscribed environment. He handled the boat in the face of prevailing conditions like an artist who ruthlessly makes his materials serve the individual mind’s sovereign plan. It was his thing, just like it was my thing to make drawings with pencil or brush and my brother’s thing to tinker with electronic gadgets to make music out of electric current. At the time when we were small the Hobie Cat was stored on a trailer at the bottom of the garden next to the beach in Watsons Bay where we lived but dad’s love of sailing had started much earlier than that.

When dad was 18 he and his childhood buddy, Peter Hein, built ‘Eroica’, a wooden Vaucluse Junior named after Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, from a kit that shipped from Sydney and cost 150 pounds. Peter Hein agreed to crew it and they raced the boat, which had a rampant lion on the sail, on weekends out of Sandringham Yacht Club on Port Philip Bay in Melbourne. Dad had left secondary school aged 14 and was employed for seven pounds a week as a junior draftsman with architectural firm Leighton Irwin & Co Pty Ltd at the time the boat was built. The next year he would sell the VJ and buy second-hand a Star-class yacht named ‘Virginia II’ that he and Peter Hein sailed out of the Royal Brighton Yacht Club. He competed in trials for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics which were held on Port Philip Bay in 1951.

After he had graduated from university and married, and the family had moved to Sydney in 1962, he would race a Jubilee-class yacht named 'Chrunest' out of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron at Kirribilli, that he bought second-hand. The next year he bought an 8.9-metre Dragon-class yacht called ‘Norseman’ – the class was introduced by Norwegian Johan Anker in 1929 – on Sydney Harbour. He would write in his memoir in later years that he wanted to participate in the selection regattas for the Australian yachting team for the 1964 Games. "Dragons and 5.5-metre yachts were the classes sponsored by the [Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron] which would be responsible for conducting the Dragon Racing for the ’64 Games," he wrote. "I guess I was hooked on Olympic competition after the Star Class races at Royal Brighton and wanted to experience the excitement again. It was decided to hold the regattas on Botany Bay and so Dragons from all over Australia [berthed] there during much of the 1963/64 season." (He remained a member of the RSYS for most of his life and would go there for buffet lunches when he had to entertain people met through business.) But keeping a crew together and motivated to compete every weekend was both complicated and time-consuming – the Dragon had a skipper and between one and three crew – and he finally admitted defeat and adopted the Hobie Cat, which he raced solo out of the Vaucluse Yacht Club in Watsons Bay.

My brother and I had been given an eight-foot plywood, single-sail Sabot-class dinghy – named, somewhat embarrassingly, ‘Laughing Jackass’ (it had a brown shape stitched to the sail representing the Kookaburra) – on Christmas Day when I was seven years old, and we would race it two-up on weekends out of the Vaucluse Amateur 12Ft Sailing Club which is located, even today, on Kutti Beach in Watsons Bay. One year in the off-season we sanded the Sabot down in the bottom garden and varnished it with fresh varnish. Dad showed us how to tear and fold a piece of sandpaper so that an abrasive side would always lie against a smooth side, ensuring that its effective life was lengthened. We learned how to use a small block of wood to assist the sanding process by letting you impose a uniform force on all parts of the sandpaper that was in contact with the hull. Using a block of wood also helped you conserve the delicate skin of your fingers, because it was easier to use the sandpaper that way. He showed us how to make sure there were no “holidays” – or drips – left in the varnish by running the brush over each applied section several times. The varnish had a strong chemical smell and needed to be washed off the brushes with turpentine, which was kept in a plastic bottle above the sink in the laundry. If you didn’t wash the brushes they became stiff with dried varnish, and had to be thrown away. The turps had its own, distinctive, oily smell.

Dad would let us lay out the Hobie Cat sail in the park next to the beach. Depending on the strength of the wind you would tie the battens – the stiff lengths of fibreglass that give structure to the sail in many classes of boat – tighter for light winds, because it served to bend the sail into the characteristic bellied curve you wanted to leverage the breeze, or looser for heavy winds, because it would keep the sail flatter when the curve would derive solely from the strength of the wind. He would take us out in the Hobie Cat and on heavy days this could be an adventure. I remember one day when it was blowing a gale dad took me out near the Heads where the swells were high. The boat capsized and it took us a long series of fraught minutes of moving about in the roiling water that was whipped into chop by the wind, to right it. In a high-pitched voice I asked him as he was getting into position preparing to stand on the windward hull of the Hobie Cat as it lay upside-down in the water, before pulling at the righting line by leaning back with the wind behind him: “Dad, are we alright?” He didn’t answer me then but he would retell the story often in subsequent years to people who took an interest in us kids. We eventually got home in one piece that time.

This tense experience seemed only to whet my appetite for adventure. I would sometimes take the Hobie Cat or my Laser out past the Heads when I got older and so I can say from first-hand experience that endless motion on the heaving sea is both awe-inspiring and exciting. With water agitated into crests and troughs around you, you felt exposed and insignificant amid the elements: air, water, light. Out there, it was different from sailing on the relatively calm waters of the harbour. The sky stretched away into infinity on all sides, except where you could see the grey cliffs on the landward side. Elsewhere, it was like eternity: nothing but open water between you and South America.

I spoke with my brother yesterday about the Hobie Cats dad used to race and he reminded me that dad would buy a new one every two years or so to enable him to keep up with the younger men at the club who also raced them. It gave him “an edge” to offset the handicap associated with being one of the older and less limber sailors in the fleet. One competitor was a man who used to tell dad that he never read books. (Dad would often be seen on weekends reading books on the couch upstairs next to the plate-glass windows that offered views of Watsons Bay.) With an incredulous and ironic twist dad’s voice would rise to a higher pitch than usual as he would tell us kids from time to time that Bob had no books in his house. My brother needed no encouragement, he was deeply interested in the science fiction he bought to feed his curiosity. I came to reading at a later age than he did and mum was so worried that I would not start reading that she enrolled me in a book subscription club when I was about 12; new books came in the mail addressed to me every month or so, and I read them hungrily. Funnily enough, Bob was a printer. When I finally moved out of home and to an apartment in Glebe near the university, Bob’s printing business happened to be located immediately across the street from my front door.

But before going to university – an event that would jumpstart voracious and wide reading and that also coincided with the end of my sailing habit – sailing was a passion of mine also. When my brother and I had outgrown the Sabot and it was clear that I wanted to continue sailing, dad bought me the Laser – a 14-foot mono-hull fibreglass dinghy that had a two-piece aluminium mast that slotted into a reinforced receptacle in the hull and stayed upright without stays –  and I would sail it one-up. After visiting Noumea one school holidays on a trip designed to improve my spoken French, I bought a Windsurfer, which was a craft made of plastic with a fibreglass mast that had a foot that you slotted into the board and that had a universal joint so that the mast could swivel in any direction.

At Cranbrook School I sailed competitively. It was my habit to demonstrate the making of a knot called a bowline to classmates in the school science lab by tying a cord to one of the gas spigots set in the workbench. I would buy sailing magazines at the newsagent with my pocket money and clip pictures from them to stick onto the covers of my school folders with adhesive plastic film. On my bedroom wall there was a big poster of a man sailing a Laser on a lake somewhere idyllic like North America. With the sailor seated on the high side of the gunwale – the flat section of the hull located along the side of the craft – the boat was cantered over in a way that demonstrated the moderate velocity of the wind at the moment the photo was taken. I thought the poster was beautiful.

One year, the school team travelled down to Geelong to compete against a team at the Geelong Grammar School and so I got to sail on Corio Bay. There, I lost a yellow-faced wristwatch I had bought duty-free on a trip overseas when the catch on the strap caught on a stay – the stainless-steel cable attached to the hull that keeps the mast upright – on the first day of competition when there was a very stiff breeze and I was crew in a 470-class dinghy. I did better the next day when the wind was light and I got to sail a Laser. Even without the watch I won that race and to celebrate my victory the rest of the team threw me bodily into the bay for my pains. At the end of our final year with a friend I jointly won the school sailing prize. Competition was based on points from races on weekdays – the school boathouse is located in Rose Bay – and on weekends, and there was no margin between our respective totals.

So on Christmas Days after the excitement of opening presents was over the three of us – my father, my brother and I – would walk downstairs and go out the front door to the carport where we would climb into dad’s car, which was parked always on the far-left-hand side of the enclosure. At our house, you had to back the cars out before you could drive head-first up the driveway leading to the street and it took a bit of skill to get out. At the top of the drive you also had to take care, and look both ways and make sure no cars were speeding down the hill, before turning south up the hill toward the city. We would turn right into Cross Street and go around the back of Double Bay, then turn into Greenoaks Avenue where the big sandstone pile of Bishopscourt – owned we knew by the Anglican Church – was located on the upside of the road. Then we would go up to Darling Point Road and down Loftus Street to New Beach Road where the yacht club is situated. The roads were empty on Christmas Day and we never had trouble parking.

It hit you through all your senses going into the club to see the boats that would be going out the next day to voyage down the New South Wales Coast into the wild waters of Bass Straight – the body of water lying between mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania – before continuing on to the distant city of Hobart, once a penal outpost and built on the mighty Derwent River. There was for the visitor a vicarious suggestion of the adventure implicit in the business of guiding such big machines out into the ocean where the motion of the swells made you dizzy.

The first thing you noticed about the place was its efficiency: people moved constantly but they moved mostly in silence, concentrating on whatever important task they had to complete. The crews of the boats we were visiting on Christmas Day were all busy getting things ready for the chase for the prize. The occasional voice could be heard as one crewmember called out to another. The next thing you noticed was the smell – of varnish, motor oil, petrol, salt, seaweed – that permeated the clubhouse and the docks alike. Next-door to the club is a ship chandler’s – a shop for things needed by sailors – and it was imbued with its own smell as well as interesting objects that made sense to us. Cleats. Shackles. Blocks. Beacons. Different gauges of rope ranked in coils on the wall. We never took anyone else to the club with us, and mum refused when asked. This was a ritual for the men in the family. There were really very few women active in yachting in those days, although you would see the occasional girl or woman visiting, as we had done, on Christmas Day.

There were people everywhere in the club, which was on two floors – upstairs were the committee rooms and the bar – and on the docks. You walked through the entranceway of the club down a hallway through the smell of wet carpet straight onto the docks which meandered their way with runs at right angles to each other meeting at corners set on pylons anchored in the bottom of Rushcutters Bay.

The docks had berths for hundreds of boats, which were tied to them at the bow or at the stern. Some boats were tied up lengthways to the dock at both bow and stern. Crew had to jump across the gap to get onto their boat carrying whatever gear they had brought with them to stow below-decks. Men walked up and down the docks doing their errands and would walk quickly past you wearing the same salt-weathered sneakers on the boat as they wore into the clubhouse. Some of the excitement rubbed off on anyone who showed up to watch them in their element. We might pause so that dad could talk briefly with a crewmember on one of the boats as we walked around the docks being careful not to step on a coil of rope here or trip over a pile of provisions left on the wooden treads there.

We wandered aimlessly along the docks. Dad would make a remark about one boat because it was made of wood and he valued the craftsmanship of the old-style craft, or about another boat because it had a new style that was proven to be faster than other designs and was made of more modern materials. The new style when we were young, my brother and I, was the Farr design, where the yacht had almost the same shape as a skiff – a small boat like my Laser made for use on flat water – with a wide stern and a cockpit practically open to the elements at the stern. There were boats made from cement moored on the docks, and boats made from aluminium, and boats made from steel.

There were big boats with famous names like ‘Anaconda II’, ‘Apollo’, ‘Love & War’ and ‘Ragamuffin’, which would be featured on the TV as their progress down the coastline was chronicled by newscasters. Dad and Peter Hein knew the names of the skippers of these boats. These men competed for line honours: the cachet that came from getting across the finish line first. Then there were smaller boats that might win on handicap – a points advantage allocated before the start based on their size. On years with heavy winds the same boat might win on both counts, but this was rare. We soaked up the vibe, letting the tension created by the approaching start permeate our imaginations as we walked slowly around the busy docks. We tried to find the boat likely to win on handicap as we went past each one tied up in the water. The outing was a treat for dad and he made it a treat for us as well. Because we had raced boats we understood the emotions of the sailors who busied themselves around us.

On Boxing Day itself the TV was turned on late in the morning while mum finished up the final preparations for the food and we got ready for when the guests would arrive. So that people would have “something to nibble on” while waiting for lunch we kids would set out little dishes of nuts – almonds and cashews – and black and green olives on tables around the place upstairs where people would congregate. We might have to put up a second table depending on the numbers expected. Sometimes there would be a “kid’s table” and an “adult’s table”. The big dining table might need a second leaf inserted. This table had a mechanism that enabled you to slide the two sides of the table apart and set an extra wooden leaf in, anchored by wooden pins set in one of its edges, before pushing the sides together again to form a larger whole. We put out knives, forks and spoons and napkins in rings. People arrived in their cars and we greeted them at the front door. There were cousins, aunts and uncles. And Peter Hein, who had also moved to Sydney and had a family, with his wife and daughters. There were old friends of dad’s from back in the day.

Dad never drank alcohol; he had contracted hepatitis one day years before – when he had gone for a beer at a pub and the lines (pipes transporting the beer from the kegs in the basement to the hotel counter) were dirty, he said – and he only drank non-alcoholic apple cider. Guests might have a beer or a wine but the tenor of the afternoon was always moderate. It was a temperate environment suitable for small children. While mum got ready in the kitchen us kids would go down to the beach and have a swim or go out on one of the boats for a quick sail. It was up to my brother and I to take charge and be responsible, making sure life jackets were fastened properly and keeping the boat out of trouble on a harbour extra-busy on Boxing Day because of all the spectator craft out to see the start of the race, which took place opposite Nielsen Park near Rose Bay in those days.

Because yachts cannot sail directly into the breeze and because the predominant wind in Sydney is from the northeast, the start of the race was usually a matter of tacking back and forth across the breadth of the harbour as the yachts worked their way up its length to windward, heading in the direction of the Heads to the north, all the while trying not to collide with competitors.

On the Laser or the Hobie Cat my cousins and I would keep mainly within the relative safety of Watsons Bay to stay out of the chop and the hustle of the spectator craft jockeying for the best position of vantage. All along the shore, people would lay out rugs in the parks and have lunch, and line the edge of the cliff to the east, on the ocean side, to be a witness to at least part of the spectacle. The yacht that was first out of the Heads into the ocean would lay claim to a certain quantity of fame until the next goal – the end of the race – was finally reached.

While the race continues to be a popular spectacle for many Sydneysiders, for me for the most part only tattered remnants persist of the rich tapestry of lived experience. Many of those who were alive then have gone the way of all flesh. Dad will have been dead for seven years next March – brought low by dementia and complications arising from a weakened immune system in a nursing home – and mum died 18 months ago, a victim of myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood condition which lowered her body’s resistance to infections. Granny – dad’s mother, Phyllis Caldicott – who lived with the family from the time we moved to Sydney, died in the mid-90s. Mum’s brother fell victim to dementia too. I probably wouldn’t be able to make a bowline now and I don’t know where the Sydney-to-Hobart start line is situated these days. Now, I contemplate my own mortality as I roam around the city on end-of-year days accompanied by these memories.

But when we were down at the yacht club much was still yet to play out including Boxing Day lunch. All that happened in the intervening years that was good and bad, all that would fulfil our dreams or frustrate them, or serve to point the way down avenues leading to images or mirages thrown up by other dreams, were still things for fate or providence to dispose of as they considered fit. My brother ended up living in America and I ended up living in Japan, but such facts can serve merely as pointers for further tales.

As we ambled along within the bustling confines of the yacht club the green water vacillated endlessly against the smooth sides of the vessels, so sometimes you might hear a “slap, slap” as you went past the stern of one where the wake that might have been created by the passage of a dinghy with an outboard motor lapped against an elegant, sloping underbelly. Mooring lines dropped toward the water before rising again to where they might have been fastened by a bowline to the marine pylons of the docks set solidly into the bottom of the teeming harbour.

Who knew what unimaginable creatures lived there, although you could see fish swimming around the pylons just below the surface of the water, down there where seaweed flourished on the wooden poles that fell into the taupe depths. There were fish of many species we had caught ourselves on other days when we had gone out in the morning in small groups to one of the bays on the harbour. We recognised them; there were Taylor and blowfish and other fish the names of which elude me now. They darted in circles in quick spurts, their tails swiping from one side to the other as they changed course, or hovered motionless next to a slow frond of brown seaweed, their fins waving rhythmically backwards and forwards like tiny white fans.

On Facebook Messenger, I told my brother: "I just did some research in dad's memoir. His first boat was named after a Beethoven symphony." "Of course it was," he replied. "He loved Beethoven." Then he asked: "Eroica?" "Yes," I answered. He evidently knew dad better than I did.

Above: The start of the Sydney-to-Hobart race in 1981. The snapshot was taken from upstairs at our house. This was my first year at university.

Above: My mother (left) and her brother talking one Christmas lunch. This photo was in the same envelope of photos as the photo at top, but it didn't have the date stamped on the back, like the other one did.

1 comment:

Resuna said...

Dad used to tell me about how Beethoven was originally going to dedicate the Eroica Symphony to Napoleon, and then when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor he was furious and instead dedicated it "to the memory of a great man".