The travel brochures describe the weather in Queensland as “beautiful one day, perfect the next.” The thing is, it’s really true. In the three months I’ve been here, I can count the less-than-perfect days on one hand. This is probably the reason that hundreds of yachties come to the Whitsunday Islands each spring from all over Australia, New Zealand, and a few other countries, to compete in either or both the Hamilton Island Race Weekand the Hog’s Breath “Tropical Shirt” Regatta , a.k.a. the “Hams and Hogs.”
Never mind that many of the top yachts and sailors from Australasia are here, that sailing conditions are nearly ideal in the warm, gentle trade winds, that the Whitsunday Islands make for attractive rounding marks, that Airlie Beach (Hogs) and Hamilton Island (Hams) are rockin’ post-race party venues, or that throngs of comely “racer chasers” show up to mix with the sailors. It’s just plain fun, and its the closest thing to Spring Break for those of us who went to college before Spring Break was invented.
I sailed in to Airlie Beach a few days before the start of the Hog’s Breath Regatta after a 600-nautical-mile coastal cruise northward from Brisbane, our Australian port of entry. Airlie is billed as “the gateway to the Whitsundays” and is a vibrant little township full of backpacker’s (budget traveler’s) accommodation, inexpensive pubs and eateries, and scores of brochure-flinging agencies hawking all sorts of travel and adrenaline-inducing activities in the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef. After a month of unhurried cruising, I was keen to get my own adrenaline flowing by doing some yacht racing, so I cruised the docks at Abel Point Marina, looking for a ride for the regatta.
I caught up with mates Anthony and Jeanine, the owners of the Farr 38 GENERAL JACKSON, whom I’d met during the Auckland-to-Noumea Race. They were looking for crew so I signed on as a headsail/spinnaker trimmer for the seven-day, nine-race regatta.
While half the crew were “pick-ups,” Ant, our skipper, did an excellent job of getting the best out of crew and boat in the conditions. We managed all single-digit finishes in the fleet of 14 boats in our division, finishing the series in first by just one point in the PHS (second) Division over Auckland sled Hydroflow, which had been celebrating a record run (less than four days) in the Auckland-to-Noumea race. Hydroflow’s navigator, who managed to misinterpret the course sheet on one race and (apparently) the tide/current chart on another, was tossed into the drink by fellow crewmembers after the last race. It seems in yacht racing, as in many other competitive sports, a team player is only as good as their last victory.
The atmosphere of the Hogs was laid-back and cheerful, with many crews kitted out in matching tropical shirts. On the other hand, the sailing schedule was pretty rigorous, with races on six out of seven days, and multiple races on two of those days. We were on the water from 5 to 8 hours a day, so time and energy for spirited socializing was minimal. There was barely time for a couple of rum and cokes at the Mt. Gay party marquee each day before it wound up at 6 pm. For those looking for a big night, the party would usually carry on at the Whitsunday Sailing Club, the official yacht club of the Hoggies, or at the local Hog’s Breath Café, the regatta’s sponsor.
With just one lay day in between the two regattas, we sailed from Airlie the 20 miles to Hamilton Island where I caught up with my Auckland sailing mates and fellow crew from Formula One Ellen, Kevin, Jan and Neil, who flew over to sail with me on Moonshadow for the Hamilton Island Sailing Week.
If the Hog’s Breath is the “pork ribs” of the two regattas, Hamilton Island is the “filet mignon.” It is billed as THE premier regatta of the Southern Hemisphere, attracting nearly 200 yachts, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, the likes of Grant Wharrington’s 80-foot sled Wild Thing, Stuart Thwaite’s 100-foot maxi Zana as well as a plethora of lesser known boats like the 62-foot Deerfoot from Sausalito, California, Moonshadow. On the water, both regattas represent some great yacht racing. Off the water, they are as different as beer and champagne.
First off, the average price of admission is about 50% higher for Hammo. It’s not hard to see where they spend the extra bucks, either. As you arrive in the Hamilton Island Marina, there’s a guide boat to take you to your assigned berth and assist you with tie up. Then a hostess arrives with a logo’d cooler full of chilled Hahn Premium Beers and a race packet. The daily post-race party at Hoggies ended at 6pm; the one at Hamo had a live band going till 4 am, preventing some crew from taking the racing too seriously. There were two fireworks displays during the week, as well as three aerial displays by an Australian precision flying team. At Hamo, they sweated the niceties. For those having a few beers on board after the race, there was a guy with a bin walking the docks, collecting empties and garbage. On the water side during “sundowner time” there was a live jazz band on a pontoon boat, serenading the moored fleet. Hamilton Island’s township with its shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs and clubs, is essentially incorporated into the marina. With nearly 200 yachts and more than a thousand sailors in attendance, the atmosphere was hugely festive.
The quality of racing in both regattas was excellent. Plagued by light winds in the Hoggies, we were forced to sail some shortened harbor courses around laid marks on two of the race days. Hamilton Island’s location, well offshore and in the middle of the Whitsundays, makes it more favorable to the setting of courses around islands according to wind speed and direction. We (and many others) found the Hoggies race instructions ambiguous on more than one occasion – the use of wing marks was sometimes confusing, setting multiple courses over the same water challenging, and the changing of committee boats from start line to finish line bewildering. The chatter over rums on the second day was how many finish lines we had to sail through to actually complete the race.
If Hamo racing was a bit better organized, the starts for the 99-boat cruising divisions were, well, nothing short of kamikaze missions. The combined beam of the fleet was easily three times the width of the average start line. Add a breaching whale or two into the picture, and the race starts to get verrrrrry interesting. I’m sure there was a lot of paint swapping going on, particularly in light airs.
In the second race, we managed to take out the bimini top, solar panels and flagstaff of a smaller yacht (appropriately named Helter Skelter) that underestimated our speed and gybed onto port (giving up any rights) before she was clear ahead of us. Neil on the foredeck calmly pushed the boat clear and handed the owner back all of his gear, while passing word to me that Moonshadow had come through without a scratch. On the last start, we were boxed in, with a choice of going over the start line early, or hoping that the slower moving boats in front of us would part like the Red Sea. Being the eternal optimist while hoping for a temporary acquittal from the laws of physics, I opted for choice “B” and either my prayers were answered, or else the skippers ahead were looking in their rear view mirrors and observing the “tonnage rule.” We found a small but ample hole and got the committee boat end of the start line within a second or two of the start gun in clear air, then narrowly missed a breaching whale, for our best start of the regatta. There were lots of high fives on board after that one!
The Cruising Division of Hamo had two lay days during the week. This gave us a bit less stress, a bit more rest, and allowed the crew to spend some time enjoying the lovely tropical resort facilities and social activities on Hamilton Island.
Throughout the week, we made friends and added a few more crew who brought various skills to Moonshadow including: sailing, local knowledge, snacktician and ornamental. True to our form, we didn’t win the regatta, but didn’t lose the party.