The City Winery Brisbane to Gladstone Multihull Yacht Race wasn’t exactly Rex’s to lose.
In fact, the ORMA60 trimaran, formerly known as New Zealand’s Team Vodafone, nearly didn’t make it to Queensland’s Easter 2022 sailing event, and certainly wasn’t expected to set a race record.
Hauled out for the southern hemisphere cyclone season in her new home port of Airlie Beach, Rex had been late to splash due to delayed delivery of parts. En-route to Brisbane, she had hit a submerged object at 24kts. With less than two weeks to the start gun, her steering cable was broken, its replacement a possible eight months away.
Happily, none of this deterred skipper Dale Mitchell and Rex’s seven crew, all of whom were champing at the bit to put their recently acquired rocket-ship to the test.
Having changed ownership in late 2019, Rex had been a restrained racehorse since the onset of the pandemic. With border closures and Covid outbreaks wreaking havoc on the Australian sailing calendar, by 2022 ‘Team Rex’ had just two race events under their belts.
Sporting a locally fabricated steering cable, custom-made ‘almost to spec’, Rex crossed the Brisbane to Gladstone start line on Good Friday against all odds.Onboard with Mitchell were crewmen Shaun Carroll, Aaron Linton, Brett Van Munster, Mick Guinea, Marty Webb, Viv Haydon and Julian Griffiths. Collectively these eight sailors had plenty of sea miles to their names, including Mitchell’s own impressive pedigree of a 49er Olympic qualifying campaign, participation in 505 World Championships, and years spent skippering commercial vessels as well as racing the likes of the Nacra 36, Malice, and Seacart 30 trimaran, Morticia.
Relaxing before the start. L-R: Viv Haydon, Marty Webb, Aaron Linton and Dale Mitchell.
Despite this, none aboard were ‘professional crew’. This was not a paid program, with each individual competing purely for love of the sport, albeit on a boat with a top recorded speed of 45.6kts.
What ‘Team Rex’ had in its favour was a crew relationship built on time and trust. “Six of the eight of us grew up sailing and racing against each other,” Mitchell explained. “We’ve known each other on and off the water for 30 years and those long-term connections are what counts. On a boat like ours, where a wrong move is a swim home, not having to second-guess anyone’s movements, straight-out translates to boat speed I guess. And it’s why we keep coming back. The enjoyment of sailing as a crew is 90% of why we do it.”
That close camaraderie was about to be tested over 308 nautical miles of offshore racing on an open boat with a minimum of 40kts consistently blowing across the deck. The eight- strong crew would be hot-bedding between four pipe berths and a mattress on the cabin sole, eating freeze-dried food and handling fatigue and seasickness in teams of two.
“We’d chosen not to slip into a normal watch routine and treat the race more as a sprint; the guys had been managing fatigue by getting rest as they needed or wanted to,” Mitchell said. “It’s deafeningly loud down below; you hear the slamming of the water and the whistling of the foils and the rigging. Not being able to see the boat’s motion you get thrown around pretty aggressively. “Sometimes you question why the hell you’re doing it but you soon forget about all that; even a long race is only two or three days so you can put up with not having an eye fillet steak for that!”
Readying the mainsail to hoist.
The crew was challenged almost immediately. Having to short-tack through the near-shore shallows of Moreton Bay in a vessel drawing 5m with the centreboard down, meant starting the race with it half-way up.
While competitors enjoyed a spinnaker run to the Tangalooma wrecks, Rex’s speed kept the apparent wind forward of the beam, constraining the crew to headsails. Sailing alongside the 100ft Reichel Pugh, Black Jack, as they settled into the leg from Caloundra to Fraser Island’s Indian Head, Rex was hit by squalls and the crew compelled to reef the main. “We basically sailed the rest of the race with the reefed main and J-Zero up,” Mitchell said. “But the breeze was more southerly than normal, giving us a bit of a runway on the squalls, so we didn’t have to change the headsail down – we could just bear away and then get back into it.”
Passing Indian Head, Rex was buffeted by the opposing East Australian Current and sustained 25kt winds, creating a short, sharp sea state that forced her crew to slow the boat down.
“We had to be mindful not to go faster than 30kts; it’s pretty hard on the guys and gear,” Mitchell said.
It was at this point however, Mitchell and his crew realised they were in the running for a race record. Ironically the fastest time to date – of 15 hours, 26 minutes and 52 seconds – was held by Beau Geste, the MOD70 Mitchell had once competed against in the Caribbean, and later went on to deliver from Australia to New Caledonia.
With only a couple of hours’ adverse conditions remaining before clearing Breaksea Spit and reaching the lee of Lady Elliot Island, it wasn’t long before Mitchell and his crew could release the handbrake. Even so, they never assumed the trophy was in the bag.
“In the Gladstone Race you never think you’ve got it until you’ve crossed the finish line because the Gladstone Channel is a proper lottery. You’re pushing current and there’s very, very light winds inside there, particularly at night – and this was midnight,” Mitchell said.
Nonetheless, Rex crossed the finish line at 1:31am on Easter Saturday, in an elapsed time of 14 hours, 16 minutes, 28 seconds, shaving 1 hour 10 minutes from Beau Geste’s former record and claiming both line honours and Offshore Measurement Rule (OMR) plus Performance Corrected (PCF) handicap divisions. Her average speed was 21.3kts.
Happy after arriving in Gladstone. Back L-R: Brett Van Munster, aaron Linton, Michael Guinnea, Shaun Carroll and Dale Mitchell. Front L-R: Viv Haydon, Marty Webb and Julian Griffiths.
“It’s different weather conditions every year so you can’t say we out-performed another team – it’s not like being on the same racetrack at the same time, it all just comes down to every race we turn up to,” Mitchell modestly said.
“Boat preparation is a massive part of it and that’s something we’ve had a bit of time to do lately. It’s also a lot easier when you’re surrounded with the right crew who all have very similar attitudes.
“In the end we knew we had a reasonable amount of time up our sleeve but as with all racing you don’t take it easy because you can. The enjoyment we get out of it is sailing these boats as fast as we can right to the finish line, and everyone just concentrates on putting in that final effort.”
With no intention of resting on their laurels, ‘Team Rex’ is already focused on breaking their own record.
“In less wind we’d have done it quicker so there’s certainly room on the table to beat this record and we’ll be back next year,” Mitchell said.
“Even though the mono’s and multi’s start in different areas and aren’t on the same racetrack more, it’s a great race against boats of all different shapes and sizes, where we’re all racing the clock and everyone’s out there because of a common goal – it’s the sport we love to do.”
Next on Rex’s agenda is the Brisbane to Hamilton Island Race and a crack at that current record also set by Beau Geste.
To watch their progress, follow ‘Rex - Orma 60 Sailing’ on Facebook.