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Home » ClubNews » Melbourne to Hobart: recollections of the Westcoaster

Melbourne to Hobart: recollections of the Westcoaster


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Ocean Racing Club of Victoria. Series winner on Performance, Addiction- Richard McGarvie. (Credit Ocean Racing Club of Victoria). Credit: .

The ORCV’s Friday morning pre-race briefing for the 2013 race fleet is ominous: weather conditions for the nine boats sailing Tasmania’s Wild West would be “fresh to frightening”.

An approaching south-westerly front expected to bring 35 to 45 knot winds mid-race would combine with an intense slow-moving low pressure system south of Tasmania to keep the winds blowing long and hard behind the front. The pre-race butterflies are suddenly fluttering furiously in many tummies. Superstitious old tars would never begin a voyage on a Friday. They would now be spinning in their watery graves at the thought of beginning one on the last Friday of the 13th year of the new millennium with a “fresh to frightening” weather forecast for a race down Tasmania’s notorious “nowhere-to-run, nowhere-to-hide” west coast, where shelter from a gale in a warm and welcoming southern Eden is but a Victorian sailor’s pipe-dream.

Addiction’s ninth Melbourne to Hobart campaign under Peter (“PJ”) Davison’s and my ownership had not got off to a dream start. Late scratchings of experienced crew and a scramble for suitable replacements; Rock of Gibraltar co-skipper, PJ, off to hospital by ambulance on Boxing Day, and unable to race; now the top batten car fitting on the brand new 3di mainsail jamming on the starboard runner when being dropped at Blairgowrie, causing the fitting to shatter and a small tear in the luff. Hence (rather than risk further damage to a new sail we might struggle to reef at sea) a mad scramble to get our old, patched and delaminating 2009 3dl main out of George Wilson’s factory to be delivered to Blairgowrie by our enthusiastic replacement crew, Emma Watt, and fitted in time for the race.

At last, we are ready to go…or are we? Engine idling as we await the departure of Tevake II for the start at Portsea, clearing the way for us to finally load our life-raft, and the last of the ice and food, in an empty marina pen and leave. Suddenly, the engine alarm begins screaming. The engine is overheating. The engine water (contrary to boat policy when an ocean campaign is underway) was inadvertently turned off the night before.

On the advice of the engineers (Tom Glass and Jurgen Pfeiffer), I keep running the engine with water on at moderate revs for a few minutes. The alarm continues to shriek. Engine off. Please cool, and please let there be no serious damage. So much hard work and planning. So many delicious meals cooked by loving hands, cryovacced and frozen. So many hopes and dreams all at risk. Without a reliable engine to charge batteries, powering light, instruments and radios, the race will be impossible.

At last, we are farewelling old friends and campaign supporters (Douglases, Barbours and Chris Sandner’s wife, Helen Cook) on the marina. We are underway, but nowhere near out of the woods. The engine is alarming again as we leave the marina. The water is turned on, but doesn’t seen to be getting through. We hoist our old onion-bag mainsail and (thanking the gods for a fair wind behind the beam) set sail through the shoals and shallows of the Sorrento channel. (May the Sorrento-sirens please let us sail once more unhindered through their shifting sands?) Engine off. Anthony Barbour, Tom Glass and David Gordon take the companionway steps and engine cover off. Check the impeller – it’s broken. There’s a spare aboard – it’s fitted. Engine on. Water flows. Blissful silence from the alarm. We narrowly escape the clutches of the Sirens, and are through the Sorrento channel and in deep water again! What can possibly go wrong now?

I am below in the cabin when there is a sudden inrush of water on the starboard side. Have we somehow burst one of our fresh-water bladders when filling them? No, the bladders are both intact. A taste test indicates salt water. The hull is sound. The water can only be coming from…the overheated engine exhaust! We’re now sailing in circles at Portsea nervously awaiting the usually-thrilling start of yet anther great ocean race. Experienced trouble-shooters, Tom and David, are head first into the stern below decks, working by feel and the light of head torches, lungs choking on diesel fumes, as they struggle in stifling heat to reconnect the flexible hose connection which has come adrift from the muffler unit to give us an operable engine with intact exhaust, as Ian Lyall passes up bucket after bucket of sea water sponged up from the bilge.

I am back on the helm. ORCV media officer, Jennifer McGuigan, friends from RMYS aboard the William Patterson, and a TV news crew are now motoring alongside Addiction. A young journalist is interviewing me across the water about our prospects in the race. I try to appear swan-like: calm, smiling, confident and unruffled, airily talking up our prospects of a handicap win, while my guts are knotted and churning with the knowledge that our ninth M2H campaign is hanging by a thread, as Tom, David and Ian paddle furiously below decks trying to keep the show on the road. I decide we’ll start and retire early if we can’t fix the exhaust.

Richard McGarvie's Addiction at the start of the Melbourne to Hobart Westcoaster 2013. (Contributed)

Contributed. Richard McGarvie’s Addiction at the start of the Melbourne to Hobart Westcoaster 2013. (Contributed). Credit .

Desultory pre-start manoeuvres begin with much on my mind as Chris Sandner hooks up the reaching kite for a potential port-pole, starboard hoist, in a fresh offshore south to south-easterly. Will our old delaminating mainsail (condemned weeks before for a serious ocean race by our sail-makers) get us to Hobart? At George Wilson’s wise suggestion, our even older delivery-main is stowed aboard in case it doesn’t. Will a crew including four M2H first-timers, and one seriously out of practice old timer, be up to the challenge of a truly gruelling ocean race? With PJ at home in bed, will the other three helmsmen stand up when it counts in potentially huge southern seas, coming at them unseen on a pitch black night of shrieking winds punctuated by eye-stinging, soaking salt spray?

My mind is racing. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them? To…” Stop over-bloody-thinking. Just start; then decide whether to retire. With half the crew for now needed below deck, tightening exhaust hose-clamp bolts, and mopping up, and a skeleton crew on deck scrambling to start at all, I choose the wrong (Portsea pier) end of the line to start (although good for a great race-start photograph by Anthony Barbour’s nephew), looking for clean wind inshore but overlooking a big boat-end bias of which most of the fleet take full advantage. Oh well, there’s a long way to go, if we are going at all, so an ordinary start in the circumstances is the least of our worries.

Reaching kite is hoisted, with spectator boats weaving annoyingly around the back of the fleet, getting in our way, as we race towards the turning mark off Queenscliff. Kite dropped, number three headsail hoisted, ready for beating out through the heads and into Bass Strait. At last word comes from below: the exhaust is fixed; bolts tightened within an inch of their high-strung, miserable little lives; engine started in neutral and alarm-free: we have a sound, seaworthy, ocean-capable vessel once more! Gut-wrenching worry is ousted by momentary wild exhilaration: WHOOOO-HOOOO!!!!!

Out through the Port Phillip heads, tacking deeper and deeper into Bass Strait in a fresh sou-sou-wester, slowly backing into the east overnight. Daylight, and wind on the beam, we hoist our reaching kite once more. We are now flying south past King Island, running down Alien, also under kite, which has out-sailed us overnight, but is now abeam and beginning to drift rapidly astern. Time for me to check the Met-Eye wind forecast on the Bureau of Meteorology web-site on my iPad while the boat still has internet coverage. Salt-swollen middle-aged fingers struggle with the delicate touch required to extract sense from an already-cracked iPad screen.

Suddenly my sense of joy and exhilaration of a promising new day at sea evaporates. The forecast west to south-westerly change is depicted on the electronic chart off the Tasmanian west coast with vast swathes of angry orange and blood red as my own blood drains from my face. Heart now beating hard, I check the legend: “orange – 60 to 70; red 70+”! And, as every modern sailor knows: “Maximum wind gusts can be 40% stronger than the averages given here.” In all my years of sailing I have never seen 70 knots at sea. My older son, then aged 17, now best known to the sailing world as Ricky Bobbie, has. Sixty foot yacht Indec Merit knocked flat onto her beam off Rodondo Island south of Wilson’s Promontory, a screaming blizzard of smoking spray, a novice sailor in her bunk wearing her PFD, praying fervently for deliverance and clutching her strobe light to her heart like a crucifix.

Seventy knots plus is not what any sane man would knowingly sail towards. A very brief discussion ensue. We’re heading for Grassy Harbour to wait out the hurricane. Let’s radio Alien to let them know what we’re looking at. Let’s double check our information first. Is it possible there is some mistake? Are you sure we’re looking at knots? It couldn’t be kilometres per hour? Curse my swollen, clumsy bloody fingers: I have inadvertently tapped the wrong little circle on screen! Kilometres per hour, not knots. Re-callibrate. Tough though it would be on a wild lee shore, 35 to 45 knots was not the stuff of unspeakable maritime night-mares. We are still racing!

My restless sleep, fully dressed with wet gear and PFD handy, with the barometer dropping and the front approaching, is interrupted by a call (as the crew has been instructed to do if I am needed) to come on deck urgently. An attempted spinnaker gybe has gone wrong, and the kite is now firmly wrapped around the fore-stay. Bowman and resident Danger Mouse, David Gordon, unhesitatingly is attaching his climbing harness to a halyard and heading aloft in the rolling swell. Anxious minutes later, the top of the kite is untangled and fluttering down. The remaining part of the tangle should be able to be freed from the deck. A long period of endlessly patient untangling, overseen by veteran fore-deckie Ian Lyall ensues, and eventually the kite is freed, undamaged. This crew, prone to occasional mistakes by the less experienced, corrected and coached by the old hands, is stepping up.

We are approaching the point of “no-point-returning”: 41 degrees south, where skippers are required to declare that the boat and crew are fit to continue ever deeper into the Roaring Forties, bound for Hobart. As I return to my bunk to try snatch some more sleep, I inform head navigator and radio operator, Ian Lyall, that – provided nothing significant changes before the next Sked – he has my authority to make the required declaration of fitness to continue. He does.

We are now placed mid-fleet, the fourth boat in a fleet of nine, with Alien now reporting a position some 15 miles astern. Leading the fleet are Extasie, Tevake II, and Spirit of Downunder. Ahead of the front, we put three reefs in our ancient mainsail and hoist the number four headsail. As I come back on watch, with night looming and seas and winds rising with the south-westerly change, Chris Sandner and Belinda Callendar brave the heaving fore-deck and drop the number four as we prepare to hoist the even smaller storm-jib for the night ahead. Finding the helm manageable without any headsail at all, I decide to see out the night making moderate way south with triple-reefed mainsail alone. Visible on deck as the light fades is an ever-changing evanescent modern art-work painted by an abject crew member’s constant Technicolor yawns, eerily lit by the light of a compass, but sooner or later to be washed away by an immense breaking wave. These conditions are truly miserable for those prone to sea-sickness.

Despite the short hours of actual darkness this far south, we all experience a very long night. I see a peak gust of 52.5 knots on our over-worked wind instrument. Big waves on top of a huge rolling swell (a peak wave that night of 12 metres was recorded by a west coast wave buoy) have the boat rising and falling, bucking, swerving, yawing and pitching, in an unseen chaotic sea, thrown about like a cork in a washing machine. As Addiction’s least experienced crew member, Katy Jones, comes off watch, and makes her way below, I see her saucer-sized eyes. Are you alright? She struggles to find a voice to reply. I’m fine. Her squeaky voice and ashen face belie her words. It really is OK, I say, firmly holding her shoulder. Trust the boat; trust the crew. This night will end. The sun will come up. Bravely, Katy is promptly on deck to stand her next watch three hours later (no doubt after little or no sleep) and do it all again. In one long night, she has become a tough and brave new ocean racer.

Invaluable ocean stalwart, Anthony Barbour, stepping up into the co-skipper’s role as the new PJ on the helming watch opposite mine, works tirelessly overnight for hour after hour keeping our sturdy little boat on course and heading sou-sou-east, well clear of the unseen jagged shore to leeward, as I doze fitfully for my brief allotted hours below. The long night creeps past as Anthony, through salt-sore eyes, and the spray of endless waves crashing over the dog-tired crew on the windward rail, sees 55 knots on the wind instrument, which then (inexplicably in the continuing howling gale) drops to zero. Daylight later reveals that the anemometer wheel has been blown off the top of the mast to its final resting place at the bottom of the Southern Ocean. It was perhaps better for our peace of mind not to know the wind strength. Another boat that night saw a maximum reading of 63 knots!

The night does end. Survival sailing ceases and we resume racing. First the storm jib is hoisted, and, as we bear away more from South West Cape towards the lighthouse marking the turning point onto the south coast, the number four headsail. Daylight reveals, not only the missing anemometer, but a thirty by fifty centimetre area of delamination on the long suffering, but still substantially-intact, mainsail. The flap of torn and detached sail “skin” is fluttering madly from the leech like a paper flag in the unremitting gale, revealing the onion bag sub-dermis below. Thankfully, mainly reaching and fast running before the wind (for which a tired old sail will suffice) lie ahead (at least until we reach Storm Bay).

Later that morning, towards the end of an off watch, I am called back on deck as the boat passes the brooding immensity of Maatsuyker island. Anthony has been washed from his helming position to starboard and has hyper-extended his knee when slipping into the cockpit beside the life raft. He is assisted below in still wildly heaving seas and helped into a leeward bunk where principal first aider, Emma Watt, capably administers the appropriate treatment. Rest, ice, compression, elevation: the RICE mantra of many a first aid course past. Forget getting much rest in these conditions: but ice is plentiful, compression and (some) elevation feasible.

Back on the helm, facing a long stretch now that we are a helmsman down, I am steering east-sou-east on starboard gybe to pass to the east of the huge glowering pyramid of Mewstone Rock. A big black cloud to the south west presages an approaching nasty squall. I decide on a “granny” tack through 320 degrees rather than risking more sail damage in an attempt to gybe. As we granny around onto port gybe, the shackle securing the main sheet block to the traveller fractures, the sail flogging wildly in the gale as we fight to regain control. We don’t have endless time to find a solution. Apart from the risk of the still triple-reefed old sail disintegrating as it flogs, the boat (having avoided the squall) is now heading back towards a looming rocky southern shore.

A team led by David Gordon recover and secure the loose mainsheet and lash the loose block to a U-bolt in the middle of the cockpit. We granny again to escape the looming shore. We are at last under control and racing again. We pole out the number four headsail to starboard, beautifully balancing the much-shortened mainsail to port. The marine race-horse we are riding can now smell the stable in Hobart, and takes off at a break-neck gallop atop the next huge wave like a wild thing. We settle to the joyous rhythm of an hours-long, and very fast, run to the east-sou-east until we calculate we can clear Bruney Island on the opposite gybe. The boat speeds mount thrillingly as we surf down the huge southern swells augmented by wind-driven waves: 18.7 knots, now 20.2. Speed records for this trip are constantly being set, and then broken again a few waves later. Twenty-two knots, then 23.6. We are only two knots shy of the all-time boat record, also recorded in the southern ocean twelve months ago, of 25.6 knots.

After three hours on the helm, with the constant and tireless serial assistance of relief helmsmen Tom Glass and Jurgen Pfeiffer as leeward “helm-helpers”, pushing or pulling as required whenever the helm threatened to escape my puny control, it was time to granny again and reset the same sail plan in reverse on the other gybe, this time hurtling north-east. Now approaching the home straight, the race horse tore off wildly again. Twenty-two knots, 23 point something, and then it happened: a huge wave atop an even bigger swell and Addiction’s reassuringly-buoyant bow is rushing headlong towards the bottom of a deep watery canyon on a thrilling downhill sleigh-ride, fire-hoses of salt water sweeping the fore-deck, white manes of spray erupting from either side of the plunging hull. Twenty-two, 23 knots…on and on…finally 25.7 knots! WHOOOO HOOOO…!!! An all-time new boat record, by point one of a knot.

Another three hours of joyous surfing on the helm, and I am completely spent. Muscles in both arms screaming for relief. Tom and Jurgen manfully step into the breach as we round Bruney Island and its jagged outlying sentinels “The Friars” and head north towards Storm Bay. As we sail into the lee of the island, our speed drops. After a worryingly-long lull in the island’s wind shadow, the crew on deck commence hoisting more sail and shaking out reefs at the urging of Anthony Barbour from below decks – down but not out. I wake and look anxiously, elegantly dressed in underpants, to see if the Met-Eye has the answer to finding more wind, after days of wanting less! No internet coverage, perhaps mercifully given my patchy and previously-wanting computer skills!

Satisfied the crew on deck are now doing all they can to keep the boat moving, I crawl back into a warm sleeping bag and drift into a long and dream-free sleep, next being awakened at the western end of Storm Bay as Addiction approaches the Iron Pot (dreadful scene of our dismasting in 2003) and the final nine miles up the Derwent River to Hobart, whose welcoming lights are glimmering ever more brightly. The Derwent River breeze, steady at first, then increasingly fickle, lifts and knocks us, rises and then falls, tacking us without warning; beckoning welcomely; and then turning her frigid back. Another typical night on the Derwent! At last, the finish was in sight and we cross the line in the light of early dawn on Monday the 30th, two days and 14 hours after the start. We have done it.

Tying up at the floating marina adjoining the Elizabeth Street pier, we are only the fourth M2H boat to reach Hobart. My wife, Angie, a much-recovered PJ and his wife, Gera, Emma’s mum, Barbara, former (and hopefully future) ship-mate, Andrew Delahunt, and other sailing friends are there at 0500 to welcome us with smiles and hugs, as is ORCV Commodore, Simon Dryden, bearing plentiful cold beers and hot pies.

The following days are a blur of dancing and partying, fine food, good company, fun and fireworks, culminating in the Sovereign Series presentation. With the abandonment of this year’s King of the Derwent due to gale force winds, we are pipped at the post by Tevake II by just one point for the trophy we won last year when Addiction took out the overall Sovereign Series. This year we are far from disgraced as winner of the Performance Handicap division of the Sovereign Series. Winners are grinners!

My toughest Westcoaster to date, and a very tough initiation for our four first-timers: Chris, Jurgen, Belinda and Katy, whose eyes – saucer-like at the height of the gale – are now shining with those of the rest of us in the joy of shared achievement in the ultimate team sport. If the Sydney-Hobart is truly the Mount Everest of ocean racing, the ORCV’s 41st Westcoaster was surely akin to Chris Bonnington’s ascent of “Everest: the Hard Way”: the North-West Face without oxygen.

By Richard McGarvie