The VMG Battle
Australia’s longest recreational pier juts into Bramble Bay, swarming with an excited crowd. From the wooden hammerhead of Shorncliffe pier, the MYCQ’s Rear Commodore Alasdair Noble broadcasts a live commentary of Australia’s biggest multihull race, the iconic Brisbane to Gladstone. A canon barks the warning signal, sending a puff of smoke over the the enthralled faces. They can hear winches begin to whizz aboard the boats as they jockey for the best starting positions, pulses beating fast in anticipation.
"Even though it’s tempting to start on starboard and cause havoc, let’s just win the boat end Pup!” says my determined daughter, eyeing up the line. A light south-east breeze is blowing and this year a short leg up to the Fisheries buoy and back through the start has been introduced to provide the crowd a more complete spectacle. Aboard Allan Larkin’s 16.2m Schionning, Attitude, Chris Dewar is live streaming the action. Due to the deep draught of the monohull fleet they have to start way out in the bay. BANG, the one minute canon fires.
Throwing caution to the wind, Renaissance make a fine effort to take the start, ahead and to leeward of Fantasia. The final canon belches smoke, the VHF announces “Individual recall for Renaissance.” Screechers roll out as crews trim up hard on the wind. After all the hard work of preparation, the race is finally under-way.
“Nice start Pup, we nailed it!” An elated Mara rushes forward to ready the kite. “If we tack close enough to the layline, XL2 will have to tack as well and won’t lay it.” It’s a dastardly plan, but that’s racing. Patiently Fantasia pinches up to the first mark while Boss Racing have to put in a short tack to get around. Now it’s a run back to the start and the Saxby’s open decked machine shows her speed, first back through the start gate. With the crowd sated the race out of the bay begins.
Fantasia and XL2 crack the best starts. Image Julian Griffiths
Past Otter Rock and close along the Redcliffe Peninsula the beauty of multihull racing is cleverly displayed to the casual observer. Boss have extended on Fantasia who still hold off the light air flyer XL2. Race favourite Top Gun holds fourth, while the remarkably revamped Rushour are finding their feet, having passed the only trimaran in the race Hasta La Vista. Renaissance are in the chase again having passed Attitude, who lead the 11.73m Schionning No Problem, closely followed by Ross Perrins’ Catana 47, Plan B. The pre race effort that got these boats to this point in time is intriguing.
One of the great stories of this race is the return of XL2, the legendary Crowther Super Shockwave design, who set the race record in 1993. Mike Peberdy crewed on her during this previous heyday in the 90’s, falling in love with the thrilling speed. Discovering her suffering an ignominious decline and having prospered himself, he set Danny McMillan’s Multi Marine the task of returning her former glory. Excelling themselves, the team launch her with a taller carbon rig, adding 2m to her original mainsail luff. Her immaculately faired finish and daringly long bowsprit now grace the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron, where she has been sparing up in the WAGS races. This being the first ocean race in her new configuration, interest is running high on how she will perform.
On the nine mile beat up to the M9 mark off Tangalooma, it’s none other than XL2 who move up the leader board, narrowly rounding the mark behind Boss. Another prime mover on this leg is Drew Carruthers’ Rushour, who pass Top Gun, rounding hot in Fantasia’s wake. The recent modifications to Rushour are amongst the most remarkable you can imagine.
“The narrow gutted beast!” This was Drew’s rather harsh comment some years back, up at Airlie Beach, looking at photos of Rushour, then a Rogers 40. Never a man who bends to convention, he set about making some rather extraordinary changes to his craft. Having done such a fine job on XL2, Multi Marine were employed to take on the radical task. Working against a public consensus that it would never work, Drew boldly took a chainsaw to his boat, chopping her into quarters.
Hasta La Vista, the modified Crowther Hemlock 11m, campagined by Jim Fern and Lyle Stanway, pass Allan Larkin's handsome Schionning G-Force 16.25m Attitude. Image Sonya Dewar
Months later, after the dust stopped flying, her hulls had increased by 3.1m to 15.3m and her overall beam had grown 2.2m to 7.6m. With a re-mastered sheerline and re-built carbon mast that fell off the glamorous Ricochet, she was launched just weeks before the race. Since then it’s been one long rushour for the team and they contest the race something of an unknown quantity.
XL2 and Boss dog fight the entire next section of the race, 27 miles to the Fairway beacon off Caloundra. Rushour pop their monster white kite and rapidly mow us down, looking gloriously fast in the late afternoon crisp autumn air. Making a hasty clearing gybe they lose some ground but win it back and more, to lead Fantasia past the Fairway Buoy. Top Gun have been surprisingly slow getting out of the bay, lagging some 3 miles astern of us. Now the boats are out in the open sea and the 109 mile drag race to Indian Head begins.
Darkness has descended and Boss, storming down the rhumline at 14/15kts wrestle back the lead from XL2. “Geez, look at Rushour, they’re doing 15kts, gun-barrel straight down the rhumbline! We’re only making 12’s and sailing high to do that!” I exclaim in amazement. She weighed in only 500kg lighter than us and is flying like an open decked cat, proving very much the dark horse. Slightly annoyed as we are, it’s hard not to to admire Drew for going out on a limb and improving his boat so dramatically.
“Oh, look, something happened to Rushour! They’re only doing 6kts now,” says Mara, observing their AIS data on our PC. Aboard Rushour they have collided with a sizable log, debris from the cyclone Debbie’s floods. A centreboard has smashed off and the section of the transom holding the foiled, spade rudder has crashed open. Shattered and concerned for the boat they decide to retire. A beastly unfortunate stroke of luck, just when they were really hitting their straps.
“Look at Top Gun, they’re doing 14-16kts down the rhumbline! Now they’re out of the bay she’s off like a scalded cat!” Darren Drew’s legendary Crowther 50 is a remarkable statement on the longevity of multihulls. Touted as Australia’s fastest multihull when she first hit the scene, now 30 years later, she’s doing a good job of staking the same claim. She is another boat extensively revamped, with new centreboards and rudders, stay-less prodder, re-worked rig and sail wardrobe improvements. On the leg to Indian Head she puts XL2 to the test, the two Crowther machines going hammer and tongs, while Boss develops a 5 mile lead.
On Fantasia we set the spinnaker to soak back down to the rhumbline. When our new crew member takes his stint at the helm he is unaware of the huge loads being developed by sailing too high on the wind. Suddenly there is that horrible ‘BANG’ as the kite blows. With so much downwind work ahead we are pretty much out of the race from this point. Yet Fantasia has other ideas. With the screecher set she hooks into a line of cloud squalls and starts to fly. From Double Island Point to Indian Head, she covers 59 miles in four hours, taking 10 miles out of XL2 and seven from Top Gun, who are less fortunate with the squalls. Hitting her record top speed of 27kts seems a good effort from a family live-aboard boat, designed and built in Australia on a shoestring budget. Yet our glory is to be short lived.
When the leaders are passing Sandy Cape, Plan B are back at Double Island Point. Even so they are ahead of a number of the monohull racers. The heavier Catana has been hampered by the light breezes, choosing to race without a kite, gambling on fresher breezes and their low handicap to pull off a podium finish. If the breeze fills in late in the race she could easily succeed.
Passing Breaksea Spit, Boss and Top Gun begin a downwind duel to the finish. Top Gun slowly gain, then gybe back towards Lady Elliot Island, taking the race lead. Boss continues north towards Lady Musgrave Island, where they find a bit more breeze and come back strong at Top Gun. Across the ‘Paddock’ their vmg is that fraction better, so by Bustard Head they hold a 3 mile lead. Of course Top Gun is not giving up.
By the S2 outer harbour mark they have cut the lead down to 2 miles. Although they continue to make gains towards the finish, its the quiet achiever, Queensland’s Boss Racing who claim line honours by 16 minutes. In a hard fought tactical battle, Gary Saxby and his team fended off the determined Top Gun, who looked to have the edge in speed once offshore. Boss completed her first Gladstone in 2008 and this is her third line honours victory. Running the UK Halsey loft in Brisbane ensures they have the latest sail developments and they are rewarded with third on OMR. Just over two hours later, XL2 cross the line taking an impressive third place.
Out in the ‘paddock’ more exciting duels are playing out. Hasta La Vista manage to pull away from Attitude and Renaissance, enjoying an excellent run to the finish, taking 20 miles out of the hampered Fantasia to post second on OMR, a fine reward for a team that have worked so hard on their boat. Meanwhile the battle between the two big Schionnings is a thriller. Attitude manages to lead around Lady Elliot Island, then it’s an intense contest between these two comfortable cruiser/racers with barely half a mile between them for 31 miles, until they split gybes. Renaissance, who heads inshore come out two miles ahead when they next cross wakes. Attitude fights back strongly to be only 1 mile behind at the S2, gaining all the way up Gladstone harbour. It’s a nail biting finish with Mike Hodges’ highly experienced team holding them off by a mere two minutes.
Ross Perrins' Catana 14.04m Plan B, an ocean going cruising boat, demonstrating such comfortable boats also make good racers. Here she wrestles with Ray Hobbs' No Problems, a Schionning Waterline 11.47m. Image Sonya Dewar
Unfortunately for the lower rating boats, there’s no freshening breeze to blow them home strongly and it’s the mighty Top Gun and her team who take the prestigious OMR trophy. Her return to the race course has been fascinating and full credit to Darren for modernising this classic design and stretching the boundaries of how long a multihull can remain competitive for. There seems a theme running in this edition of the race with Mike Peberdy’s success on XL2 chalking up another score for just how long a good set of hulls can take on the demanding ocean in this testing pastime.
Now the unique party feeling of Gladstone takes hold of the crews, dazed from their intense workout on the blue sea, taking on the elements of the world’s most beautiful playground. Through the leaves of the lush green trees in the harbour festival area, classic rock tunes waft out from the stadium, mixing with the aromas of tempting foods. At the fun fair all manner of rotating rides swirl about amid the blaze of colourful lights, while the parade graces the streets, with costumes to delight the child in everyone. Sailors sit back contentedly, sipping their favourite beverage, securely wharfed up, for the time being at least.
Welcome changes were made to the race this year, down-grading it to category 3. Most notably this means a life raft is no longer required. With the welcome sponsorship of CH Robinson, entry fees are now easily affordable. Taking on an offshore race is a great motivator to upgrade such items as one’s first aid kit and make shipshape any weak links in equipment. The Brisbane to Gladstone race is the epitome of our offshore scene, usually an enjoyable downwind ride and still the big one to win.