Commentating the Sydney to Hobart race for ABC Grandstand- a Christmas ritual

Covering the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race

In at the deep end

When I was first assigned the job of covering the Sydney Hobart race for ABC Grandstand I didn’t have much experience to fall back on or in fact anything tangible to hang on to. ‘There’s a rock on the shores of the Derwent river near the finish line, grab a mobile phone sit on the rock and call the finish from there’ was the sum total of advice from my predecessor in the ABC Hobart office, Peter Walsh. This was 1999, the days of Nokia mobile phones and the year a blue-hulled boat of the same name (Nokia) shattered the race record. Things developed a lot from those rudimentary beginnings in the 16 years I covered the race in the two cities that I’m qualified to call home.

It seems most people who remember my ABC career (and many do) associate me more closely with the Sydney Hobart race than anything else. It’s hard to put a finger on just why the event commands such close attention from a nation of people who by and large wouldn’t follow another race on water at any other time of the year. But it’s fair to say that a master dramatist couldn’t devise a race course with so many distinctive and intriguing elements.

A familiar Christmas ritual

It’s as familiar as any Christmas ritual. The sight of the race fleet mustering on Sydney Harbour on Boxing Day ahead of the 1pm start. Sure the cricket at the MCG is in full swing, but there’s always the chance of rain in Melbourne. The yacht race isn’t delayed by the elements – it’s determined by them. And it’s a race that runs around the clock with a finish time that won’t be defined by anyone’s TV schedule. It’s also an event defined by geography as well as human drama and achievement. Think of the following landmarks and they’ll evoke the feeling of Christmas time as much as any piece of tinsel or turkey leftover: Green Cape, Bass Strait, Eddystone Point, Tasman Island, Storm Bay and the most fickle mistress of them all, the Derwent river.

Reporters and commentators work to a race schedule defined by weather, currents, strategies and luck. That can mean getting down to the waterfront at 0300 in the chilly pre-dawn of a December morning in Hobart to set up your broadcast gear and prepare to describe to an expectant nation exactly what is happening.

Knowing the ropes

My background for this responsibility was limited but happy. In the early 1970s my father built two Mirror dinghies by himself, Hesperus and Sirius. In these entry-level sailing craft designed to be sailed by a father and son (or mother and daughter) I learnt the rudiments of sailing. How to tighten a sheet, avoid getting clouted on the head by the boom, and gain the general satisfaction of setting a spinnaker and seeing it set. Then leaning off the gunnel to ensure the racer moved at maximum speed. None of this knowledge or the associated techniques led to much success in terms of regatta results but decades later when yacht racing commentary became my thing it came in very handy. I owe those two noble vessels as well as my dad a debt of thanks.

It’s worth pondering why some people are drawn back to the race year after year. Sure there’s the camaraderie and the challenge of racing together at sea for 2 to 7 days, the sheer satisfaction of completing the course and the fabulous warm reception at Constitution Dock. The race in its own way also creates a sense of community and family. Everyone is in awe of its scale, from the challenge it presents to the degree of interest from the media and the public. And there’s always the buzz of the first beer and scallop pie on hitting dry land.

The technical and logistical aspects of my coverage of the Sydney Hobart race are covered in some detail in Around the Grounds. If you read the chapter which is dedicated to the Hesperus and the Sirius it might conjure up memories and associations of the magical week between Christmas and New Year. It was Sir Frank Packer who once described America’s Cup yachting as being as ‘exciting as watching grass grow’. I never once felt that way about the Sydney Hobart race…


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