The first of the three big North Queensland regattas kicks off with the 26th Airlie Beach Race Week. Amassed this year is arguably the most competitive fleet of racing multis ever assembled in Oz, all eager to enjoy the challenge of racing around the magnificent Whitsunday Islands.
Remember the wild town of Tortuga in Pirates of the Caribbean, well Airlie is something of a real life version; fuelled by wide eyed backpackers lusting for the sea and salty sailors needy of some terra firma and a steadying ale or two. Buxom girls sway about the dance-floor, wooed by shady characters too long on the sea. Party town swells to double its size over Race Week as sailors from all over the country reach for their dreams of grabbing the silver and partying every night.
Sign on day and the anticipation mounts, sailors shake a leg to the tropical rhythms of Montserrat, the Jimmy Buffet tribute band under the impressive big top adorning the Whitsunday Sailing Club grounds. The multihull racing fleet is one of the best ever, with 18 multis agreeing to race as one division and five cruising multis taking the more laid back option.
The traditional Cones/Olden opening race generally sets the scene for the rest of the regatta. After the short windward beat, kites or screechers pop out on the glorious blue sea, bathed in warm sunshine propelled by a steady 10/15kt south east breeze. I had ear-marked the big three M’s as our main rivals and it quickly becomes apparent this prediction is very close to the mark. Morticia, two times Australian Multihull Champion, and odds on favourite to take out the regatta, shoots off in a close tussle for line honours with Mad Max, the current Australian champ. Mojo, back in Australia after her glorious Asian tour, seems a bit slow out of the blocks but pulls right back on Fantasia by running deep and fast.
We round Olden Island in the hot company of Mojo, Bare Essentials and Dux Nutts. Just ahead the ‘Red Boat’ Boatworks is having a fine tussle with the new kid on the block, the ‘Green Boat’, Wazza Innes’ freshly re-vamped Grainger 40’ open decked race cat. Named after Wazza’s cruisy lifestyle, Barefoot boasts an all star crew, including world champion Nacra skipper Jamie Leitner, multihull legend Gavin Le Sueur and Rob Lattimore. Crack crew aside, Warren is nervous on entering the big stage and sets his sights on beating Fantasia over the line.
Morticia blitz the fleet to beat the higher rated Max home by three minutes and claim the race on OMR. Fantasia manages to hold onto Mojo enough on the beat home to claim second with Max in fourth. A losing tack offshore by Barefoot sees them beaten home by the Boatworks, yet achieving their goal beating Fantasia home by five minutes. Showing considerable improvement from last year, Peter Hawker’s Carbon Credit with Quantum Sails’ Ben Kelly aboard is third home, showing glimpses of exceptional speed.
Race two goes down in history for the wackiest start of all time. Keeping out of the melee, Fantasia comes in on port, tacks under Morticia and looks all set to nail the perfect favoured pin end start. Suddenly the wind falters and shifts to the east, so we fail to lay the pin and have to start gybing around, while behind us we see the black Lombard tri having to peel away also. “Don’t worry!” calls Mara “Mojo can’t lay it either, in fact most of the fleet can’t!” Once we all get going with a breeze lucky to push 10kts in yet another superb sunny day, it becomes a battle of the light air flyers around Grassy Island. Mojo shows the form that made her champion of the light air Asian circuit as she fires a warning shot at Morticia, the typical victor of any light air affair, showing that cats can match tris in light airs. Max also revels in the lighter airs to take third with Fantasia scraping a lucky fourth by a mere three seconds from a much improved Renaissance, who is showing marked improvement after the flattening out of her stern rocker.
Displaying just how tight the racing is; the margin between fourth and ninth is a mere three minutes, which over a two and a half hour race is so very little. Crosshair, the Farrier F32 srcx, airs her wares to pull off a competitive sixth, relegating her sister ship Carbon Credit to eighth. J’Ouvert, who looked golden running deep and fast to Grassy Island, took a losing gybe away and ended on the wrong side of the three minutes in ninth.
Day three’s race is postponed for several hours waiting for the breeze to fill in. Eventually the race to White Rock is abandoned in favour of the Pioneer Bay triangles. Those who tack over toward Funnel Bay pick up good pressure on the first leg, but confusion over the colour of the windward mark sees several of the leading boats sail well past it. Mojo dominate again on OMR, beaten home only by Mad Max, who score second while Carbon Credit make a welcome appearance on the podium in third. Highlighting Fantasia’s race is a demanding series of furl up screecher tacks along Grimston Point to stay out of the tide, matching digs with the more handy Boatworks. For some reason the crew are fairly worn out after a dozen furls of the 90sqm five ounce sail, yet their effort is worth it as we scrape a fourth ahead of Morticia. Hounding us closely all race, J’Ouvert and Renaissance watch their chances fade with the breeze, even so J’Ouvert manage a creditable sixth.
Back at the club, local pop/rock band ‘Tropic Temple’ cast their party spell. Helped by flowing rum the heated protest over the position of the windward mark eventually calms. Each night the excellent selection of musicians pump out groovy chords, inspiring sailors to shake a jig on the dancing green. With the lay-day ahead crews cut loose, swallowed up by the delights of Airlie town. Fortunately this year the breeze has been kind on our gear and we can enjoy the pleasures of a relaxing day off, nevertheless we are looking forward to freshening trades for the second half of the regatta to lift our performance.
Windward/leewards are announced on day five, under a vibrant blue sky with the breeze climbing to 15kts at times. The first start on quite a short line for 18 multis is keenly contested to the extent a general recall is signalled. The ‘I’ flag is hoisted for the second attempt, meaning any boat over early must restart by going around the ends. Fantasia and J’Ouvert have an unfortunate start line collision, which sees them both out of the race. The big 3M’s nab the top spots with the Boatworks in fourth pipping an unlucky Renaissance by five seconds. Two Up Together, Justin Grunwald’s luxurious Crowther 50 sails well to be a mere 40 seconds back in seventh. In the second windward/leeward, the crew on Fantasia regroup to grab second, with Max again taking the honours, while Mojo and Morticia are edged down to third and fourth.
Friday sees the trade wind pumping at 20kts plus and the course set around the Molles and White Rock. All the multis, bar Mad Max set off reefed. After rounding the windward mark it’s a power reach across Funnel Bay and the multis are ripping along, atomising the blue water into huge jets of spindrift which float down onto surprised monos, left rapidly in the jet trail wakes. Out in the Molle Channel the breeze increases, with Mojo and Fantasia enjoying the classic big boat drag race sitting on 18/20kts, while some of the open decked racers are beginning to labour.
Beating up into the steep seas of the Whitsunday Passage, Fantasia is in her element, duelling with Mojo, whose lofty rig and overlapping jib seem at times to be overpowering her. Darren Soper, our on-board photographer even manages to capture the majestic sight of the mighty Schionning G-Force cat flying a hull. Morticia is really labouring and just cross our bows as we tack in towards Molle Island looking for flatter water.
Fantasia rounds Denman Island with a narrow lead over Mojo, who then pass us on the reach to White rock. Heading downwind both big cats pop kites and blast off on a thrilling downwind ride sitting on 18kts, pedal to the metal all the way to Bluff Point. Mojo holds us off on the beat by 34 seconds, but Fantasia shows she is a force to be reckoned with in a breeze, posting a solid seven minute win on OMR. Mojo scrape in for second by 21 seconds from the Boatworks, with Mad Max a mere 23 seconds back in fourth rounding off the cat domination in a breeze.
It’s all over by midday and back in Airlie we hear the sad news that Bob Critchley’s Pescott Whitehaven, Cool Change capsized in a bullet off Hannah Point. Luckily no-one was injured and Cool Change was later righted with minimum damage. New moon is setting over the sailing club as ‘Four String Phil’s funky rhythms soothe sailors tested nerves.
Darren drags me up to Beaches for the Friday night pool comp, for he is an experienced pool shark. After last year’s early exit from the comp, he’s been training all year for this night. Several schooners of Guinness later, the smooth roasted flavour sits pleasantly on me, but I find a sheepish Darren standing forlorn, defeated by local Joey Pearce. “The cushions are dead! The chalk is poor. My feet stick to the floor!” grumbles Darren as we row out to Fantasia under a glorious canopy of stars. He’s already dreaming about pulling it off next year.
For the final race the breeze is still whistling about our rigging, yet the smoother seas of the Pioneer Bay triangles promise to give less advantage to the big boats. The breeze goes a bit fluky, Mojo is looking good and we have Renaissance hot on our tail down the first leg. While most boats are on the port gybe heading in towards Bluff point, we spy a good gust out to starboard. One of the joys of having a fine crew, we are able to throw in a hasty gybe and hook into this breeze, which pulls us right back. On the reach toward Grimston Point, the two Farriers, Carbon Credit and Crosshair rip by, sailing high and fast, foils growling.
On the beat up to Pioneer Rocks the breeze seems fresher offshore, which suits the big cats, while Boatworks tacks inshore and loses ground. Mojo has pulled away a bit by the time we round the final lee buoy off Bluff Point, with Crosshair eager to pass us. We tack straight away while Crosshair holds on into a hole. It looks like we may cross Mojo, who tack towards Funnel Bay while we play the shifts into the bay. Finally we take a knock and I am unable to fulfil Drew Wooler’s dream of beating Mojo home.
Fantasia takes another windy race by a very close five seconds to Mad Max. The significance of this five seconds has a huge impact on the final series result, for had Mad Max taken the final race they would have won the regatta. As it is Mojo regains her winning ways by one point from Mad Max, with Fantasia in third a mere point behind. The mighty Morticia have to content themselves with fourth. Thus comes to an end arguably the most competitive and hardest fought multihull regatta in Australian waters.
Last year’s strong winds thinned down the cruising division considerably, yet this year the wind gods were far kinder. The Richard Jenkins special, ex-OMR racer, Kestrel led the fleet home every time, yet it was the remarkably quick and consistent Catana 431, Tyee III who claimed the honours on performance. Mon Amie, the Fontaine Pajot Levez took second on count back from Kestrel, while the Montabello 12.5 Misty Sea, a mere point behind have to settle for fourth.
Night falls, rum and ale flow, the party is bursting with revellers, letting their hair down after a thrilling week of racing ‘Gypsy Soul’ have the dance floor rocking, Mars is on the rise, I back away from the happy crowd and doff my hat to my fine crew, Mara my daughter, Darren Soper the best Cornish pirate ever, Drew and Clint Wooler from the good ship Lickety Split, Alex Mcmillan from Multi Marine and my partner Carolyn without whom this remarkable Fantasia campaign would not be possible.