Sydney-Hobart Race: Rogue Waves Do The Damage

The Sydney-Hobart Race disaster report suggests that in ultimate conditions, boat design may be less key to survival than good gear and seamanship.


If you encounter severe conditions aboard your boat, what most likely will be a problem, cause you extreme grief or even cost you your life?

And how will all your carefully selected safety equipment perform?

Most sailors read disaster and storm encounter reports to pre-condition their minds for what they may face and also to continually upgrade their boats and refine their safety equipment.

An unusually good opportunity for an exercise of this kind is contained in the 166-page Report of the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race Review Committee, which was commissioned by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia.

Dated May, 1999, the report is similar to that published after the Fastnet Race disaster 20 years earlier. Its a good report, based largely on extensive questionnaires sent to those who participated (110 boats out of 115 starters responded).

Because well be dealing here with lots of numbers, lets set the stage.

The Course and the Carnage
The 630-mile race starts in Sydneys Botany Bay in New South Wales and runs almost straight south, crossing the infamous Bass Strait at right angles, then along the coast of the island called Tasmania. Finally, the course takes a short button-hook up to Hobart.

With an average of 100 to 150 starters (there were 371 on the races 50th anniversary in 1995), the race is an Australian sports icon. There have been a few drifting matches, but generally its a tough ride. In the 1993 race, only 38 of 104 starters finished.

The race used to take 5-6 days, with boats averaging about 6.5 knots. Recent races have taken 3-4 days, with average speeds better than 8.5 knots. The record, about 2-1/2 days, is held by a German maxi that averaged 10.5 knots.

The 1998 race started at the usual 1 p.m. on the standard December 26 (Boxing Day), in a light northeast seabreeze that clocked northwest and freshened in the evening, went west to 35 knots by morning, and by midday was south at 60 knots-with 982 millibars on the barometer.

By then, the fleet was poking its nose out in front of the western end of the Bass Strait which, with funneling winds and an ornery current of from 1 to 4 or more knots, can be a nasty piece of shoaling water whose waves, with no backs, belong at Cape Horn.

By 5 p.m. on the fleets second day out, Australian authorities had issued a General Mayday.

In the questionnaire, more than a third of the fleet reported that waves, always breaking, ranged from 50 to 80 feet. The average wave height reported was 30.8′, with maximum waves at 45.9′. The average wind strength reported by all yachts participating was 54 knots, with gusts to 68. Combined, the wind and waves produced white-out conditions.

When it was over in the late afternoon of December 28, 71 of the 115 starters had retired-26 of them because yacht and equipment not in condition to continue. Five boats sank. Five yachts had been rolled 360, two of them twice. All five were dismasted and three were among the five yachts that sank.

Six men were dead.

Another 55 had been snatched to safety by 25 aircraft and six rescue ships. More than 1,000 personnel were involved in the rescue work.

The Main Conclusions
For those hoping to learn from the horrific experience of those who sailed in these chaotic conditions, perhaps the two most significant statements in the report are:

1. There is no evidence that any particular style or design of boat fared better or worse… The age of yacht, age of design, construction method, construction material, high or low stability, heavy or light displacement or rig type were not determining factors.

2. Yachts that experienced problems or encountered difficulties, and even those that continued racing, reported that exceptional waves were responsible for inflicting the damage or causing severe knockdowns. These waves were always a minimum of 20% and up to 100% bigger than the prevailing seas and always came from a direction other than the prevailing wave pattern.

Regarding item #1, the boats fall in no pattern. With an average length of 43′, they averaged 11.7 years old, with masts 7.7 years old and rigging 3.3 years old (41% rod, 18% Dyform and 39% 1 x 19 wire).

Eleven percent were full keel boats, 42% had fins and 47% had fins with bulbs. Fifteen percent were wood, 5% were aluminum, 60% were fiberglass and 20% were exotic.

The boats in the Sydney-Hobart Race probably are not widely known to Practical Sailor readers. The boat brands have names like Cole 43, Coverdale 51, Joubert, Reichel-Pugh 43, Jarkan 40, Bashford 41, Swanson 42 and several Farr designs.

What Got Damaged?
The accompanying table summarizes what happened to the boats.

It is no surprise that sail damage headed the list. Even a severe thunderstorm usually results in some damage to what is perhaps the most fragile part of a sailboat. Subject the sails for a day or two to winds of Force 11 or 12 (hurricane winds start at 12) on the Beaufort scale and its a wonder theres anything left but tatters.

Electrical problems are scattered throughout the list. If electrical and other problems big and small with equipment dependent on electrical power are added together, it easily would surpass the sail damage category. It suggests that if you want to test yourself against the ultimate storm, don’t look on electricity as your compatriot.

The report did not investigate the cause of various electrical failures, but it did say that water ingress because of big and breaking waves was felt in some instances to have been able to penetrate electrical systems…

Although 10% of the boats reported that a portlight was breached, it seems surprising that no hatch problems were reported and that, considering the violent conditions, there were so few problems with rudders-a common failure point.

Safety Equipment
The questionnaire asked many questions about safety equipment. An alarming 42% reported some type of problem with safety equipment used.

But first of all, was the safety equipment used? Here are the percentages of yachts who claimed that standard yacht routine is to use regularly the following equipment. The second number shows the percentages of yachts who used various equipment during this race (used regularly% / used in race%).

Safety Harnesses: 91% / 97%
Life Jackets: 10% / 38%
Personal Strobe: 19% / –
Storm Boards: 17% / –
EPIRB: – / 11.5%
Personal EPIRB: – / 8%
Life Raft: – / 3.4%
Life Ring: – / 1.0%
Danbuoy/Jonbuoy: – / 3.4%
Pyrotechnics: – / 11.5%

What failed?
There were problems with life rafts-two were washed overboard and several inflated prematurely, one as it was being hauled from below. Some rafts flipped repeatedly when tethered to the boat or rotated in the wind aft of the boat. Some tethers failed. Some of the individuals accounts of what happened are horrific. One reported, …a large wave picked up the life raft and tumbled it some 8 to 10 times.

Of the six lives lost, three were crew who had taken to a life raft only to be thrown out and separated from the raft. Two of their companions, in another raft, watched them blow away.

Regarding harnesses, 25 crew ended up in the water because of knockdowns or by being washed overboard by large waves. There were many reports of being thrown to the limits of the tether. Three individuals had harnesses pull off over their heads, including one attached to a foul weather jacket. On another harness, the stitching failed (when the boat rolled 360). Eight sailors reported problems with the attachment hardware.

One yachts jackline failed. Webbing jacklines were universally criticized as a potential risk to crew because it was too stretchy.

Life rings, Jonbuoys, horseshoes, Life Slings and Danbuoys got little use, as shown on the chart. An estimated one third of them were washed overboard by waves, leading to a recommendation that they have better mountings, be mounted in a better place than the pushpit or simply eliminated from the required equipment list.

Five yachts reported difficulty with personal flotation devices, three of which were automatically inflatable types that inflated unintentionally. The report further stated that many crewmen were reluctant to wear any life jacket because it increased the buoyancy of the individual and increased the risk of being washed overboard; were bulky and cumbersome and would not enable freedom of movement.

Eleven yachts launched pyrotechnics. Five had trouble with them, three because of inexperience in firing them; four claimed the flares did not light.

Nine yachts activated EPIRBs. Both 121.5 MHz and 243.0 MHz EPIRBs were criticized as inadequate in providing positions with sufficient precision for SAR authorities and because they do not allow discrimination of one beacon from another.

As in most ocean races, SSB radio (called HF in Australia) was the fleets primary means of routine communications. VHF was secondary. Radio communication was described as not as good as it could have been but the report listed few equipment problems (mostly because flat batteries made electrical gear inoperable).

How Best To Cope
Here are several final fascinating details included in the report.

Crews were asked to describe the trim under which their yachts best handled the conditions:

Beating – 14%,eased off up to 15% – 36%, reaching off – 25%, running before storm – 12%, bare poles/lying ahull – 3.6%, other – 6.4%.

Crews also were asked, in general, for any suggestions about how to improve the ability of the boats and crew to withstand difficult conditions:

More training on equipment – 22.7%, personal EPIRBs – 20.0%, more frequent weather info – 12.7%, improved life rafts – 8.2%, more experience – 8.2%, smaller storm sails – 3.6%, reduced price safety gear – 2.7%.

These were not inexperienced crews. Eighty-four percent of them said they had faced similar conditions at sea. The committee disagreed. It developed a methodology for judging and said that 20% were extremely experienced, 15% were moderately experienced, 25% were experienced, 26% were moderately inexperienced and only 14% were inexperienced (novice).

Fifty-three crewmen aboard 37 yachts suffered injuries, a small number considering that 948 individuals were involved. Most (84%) of the injured sustained more than one kind of injury. The types of injuries were:

Broken/Cracked Ribs – 51%, laceration/gash/cut – 27%, concussion/other head – 22%, muscle strain/tear/bruise – 35%, other – 46%.

In all of the data, what stands out sharply supports a persistent theme of Practical Sailor: What is most needed aboard most boats is practice in the use of safety equipment.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida.


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