Almanac Yachting: The `87 Sydney to Hobart


Left to right: Piggy, Nank, Uncle Les, Michael Thorpe, Teddy McLennan, Jack Rigg, Bill Basquill



The ’87 Sydney to Hobart


Goosewinging to Glory – Just

The Fante, our 22 foot Santana, was in front heading for the finishing line in the final race of the Royal Australian Navy Sailing Club (RANSA) winter series in the Harbor. If we won this one, we would win the flag. Marian, a 23’ Hood, helmed by the hated Duffy was closing in a light following wind. No time for a spinnaker (kite) so Uncle Les on the helm decides to goosewing the main (main out to port, headsail out to starboard). He called Tommy Balfour (of Adelaide pie fame) to push out the main. Now Les could have his sets on people and he had one on Tommy big time. Uncle wasn’t happy with Tommy’s work and leant forward to push the main out further while helming with his foot. He overbalanced and slipped over the side. Now 16 stone of wet weather gear clad Les is a hard one to hold. I had hold of his jacket and leg as we travelled with him alongside and finally got him on board as Duffy was nearly on us. We just snuck over the line. Uncle just sat there invoking one of his famous 1000-yard stares at Tommy.  He said quietly: “You’ll do me Tommy. Fuck all those intelligent blokes.”

Back in the Bosuns bar at RANSA, we agreed it was time for a bigger boat and so our offshore days started.


RANSA – a sailors’ club

I’d been sailing on Fante for three years, having been introduced to RANSA and Uncle Les and Skipper Jack, by my lifelong mate, Michael Thorpe of Adelaide Uni Footy Club fame. He and I had previously sailed as VS 16’ racing skiff – one on helm, two on trapeze. It was a flying machine but couldn’t outrun a ferry as we found out when we made one stop in front of the Opera House. We wisely retired from that beast and onto the Fante. RANSA is a tight knit club and famous for his slightly raffish reputation together with serious sailors. It sits adjacent and counterpoint to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) – the glamour dollars club. RANSA had some great characters such as Hayden Scutter, the youngest Spitfire pilot of WWII. His great mate was Harold the Hun. Club rules allowed that anyone who had served at sea could be a full club member. Harold had served with the Kriegsmarine (the opposition) as a submariner. Therefore, he was a welcomed into the club and was popular RANSA man. No matter what your background, a RANSA person was a member of a tight knit group.


The Mighty Hornet and the Crew

We bought the Hornet from Norman Ridge (the magazine bloke) who had only cruised her mainly in the harbour. She was a strong Sparkman and Stephens 36 footer. We knew we could be competitive with a new rig and sails as we were in the passage and in-shore races leading up to the Hobart. The teak fittings below were resplendent but had to be stripped out as we were now a racer.

Jack Rigg, Uncle Les and I added Bill Basquill to form the Sting Syndicate to finance the boat. Bill was the best turned out sailor in the whole Sydney fleet and definitely raised the tone among us. He even had shoe horns for his sailing shoes which we found out when he tried to bring these on board in his suspiciously heavy sea bag for the Hobart run. Jack was an ex-Scotland Yard Detective Inspector now criminal lawyer. He was a hard man with a withering tongue but fiercely loyal. Uncle Les Thompson was another hard man and one of the best light air helmsmen about. Jack and Les had the repartee and delivery off pat so much so that the late actor Ray Barrett, who sailed with us once, remarked that they had considerable commercial potential but the language might need to be cleaned up a bit.

For the Hobart we got Michael Thorpe back from Perth and added some serious offshore experience in Ted McLennan as sailing master and Piggy Smith as navigator/cook. Teddy was a master mariner with 20-odd Hobarts and Piggy the same. Piggy was a deft hand with the sextant which was to come in handy on the run home.

The Australian Business Magazine published pen pictures of the 161 yachts before the race. This what they said about us.


HORNET Sail No 3712, 10.84m


Owned by the Sting Syndicate comprising solicitor Jack Rigg, printer Bill Basquill, international economist Paul Nankivell and carburettor specialist Uncle Les Thompson. Plenty of pasta on this boat as is provisioned by La Bora restaurant.

Not a dry boat.



The Run Down to Hobart

In those days there was only one start line instead of the three now. So 161 boats big, wannabe big and modest all cruising round hemmed in by spectator fleet (cf today’s fleet is generally around 100-120). Screaming shitfight it was. We managed to stay out of the melee and got a good start behind the testorerone mob. Just under south head going out of the harbour for the big turn right, Much Ado called us port and starboard and put up the protest flag with 638 0f 640 nautical miles to go. I know those pricks says I. They were the Corry boys with my mate Gerard Kesby navigating. We did the 720 to dissolve the protest as they smirked as they slid past us. Jack and Les were silent which meant one thing – Corry boys were in for it when we got to Hobart.

The Hobart race is in four parts for mine. Down the mainland coast, across Bass Strait, down the Tasmanian coast and turn right into Storm Bay and the Derwent.  The run down the coast was ideal for kite work with a rhythm and consequent banter working well. The scope of punishment for the Corry boys was discussed at length.

On the first night Teddy was helming with Jack and me on the sails. We were mostly under kite which required helm work and trimming of the highest order. It was a moonlit night and this was what it was all about. Teddy told us no chatter you blokes, I sail by feel not telltales, don’t need talking. Well, I like a chat and so does Jack so we just sat there for four hours following Teddy’s directions. Normally at night you are always shining a torch on the main and head sails occasionally the deck lights on to check the kite/headsail and checking the telltales, luff and leech and reporting back to helm. Not so Teddy, he just gave instructions without reference to any of that. At the end of the four-hour watch he had increased boat speed between half to one knot compared to the other watches. When we finally were allowed to talk we asked him why. He said I sail at night by the wind on my face. I angle it so that I can pick up shifts. I have to as I got cataracts in both eyes and can’t see a thing at night. So that was his secret. Tactile Ted.

Sailing conditions in Bass Strait are completely different. As Teddy said it’s a shallow bugger with a strong sideways current so the prevailing winds create big rollers with steep backs. Up the front and then angle steeply down the bottom. In a 36-footer we felt it but we held the kite when we could. We had one screaming Chinese gybe as the combination of sideways current and windshift meant the spinnaker pole was pointed in the water, the boat had gone sideways and the main was bashing into the rigging. We sorted it but drinks privileges were rescinded.

Finally out of Bass Strait and down the Tassie coast where the water gets blacker and the foreboding shore line is dark and menacing. Imagine how convicts from Sydney felt. The whale at dusk shut us up quick smart. About a mile astern and doing a deep dive after announcing its presence. Hope she’s antisocial says Piggy. Onwards with good following winds into Storm Bay. Suddenly there’s a convergence of boats and the tacking game was on with Uncle Les at the helm. Past the Iron Pot with the obligatory tankard of port and into the Derwent where calm seas and light airs meant Uncle could do his stuff and we would set sails accordingly. We picked up three places in the Derwent in night sailing and arrived at Constitution Dock at 2 am after 4 days and 13 hours which was creditable for a boat of our size. Then the raging tension-dissipating thirst took over. The fraternity of blue water sailors is a wonderful thing. The toasts to other boats, the exuberant greetings of their crews and the comradeship is extraordinary. Then the Corry boys pulled in. We’d nailed them in the Derwent so that point was made. Jack welcomed them with acid faint praise while the grovelling performance of my mate Kesby was a hinge factor in our grudging forgiveness.


Hobart Cultural Events and A Prize

Hobart opens up with one large party. Packed waterfront bars, cultural events such the Quiet Little Drink in which upwards of 2000 sailors et al descend on a hapless pub and drink it dry. One prestigious event is the presentations run by the Royal Hobart Yacht Club. The Hornet didn’t bother until someone said where’s Billy. Billy was dying to put on the Blazer, RANSA club tie, clean shoe-horned boat shoes and flannel trousers so he did and attended the presentations. Billy turned up to the Hope and Anchor where we were ensconced and brandishing a trophy – fourth in division D. He was told to go home and changed.


The Run Home

After three days of partying we slipped out of Hobart up to Wineglass Bay via Dunnally passage short cut for the Crayfish Derby then off home. Winds were from the North West as we laid a tack in heavy seas. For three days we laid that tack and getting knocked down across the Strait and into the sea lanes. We had Piggy on the sextant as the satnav had been a Constitution Dock party victim. On the morning of the fourth day we tacked after Piggy reckoned we were either 80 or 180 miles off Eden. 24 hours later we saw the lights of Eden. Piggy’s estimate of 180 was correct.  After refreshment at Eden we cruised up the coast to home.

Teddy summed it up. You blokes did all right he said. You’ve bought a new boat late in the season, rekitted it, had a few easy offshores and basically relied on each other and done all right. Well done.

We going again next year fellas? You bet but that’s another story.


Read more from Nank HERE



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  1. Peter Crossing says

    Thanks Nank. Good story for a landlubber like me to read. Like your turn of phrase.
    Nank and Thorpe – Riders On The Storm.

  2. This is a cracking yarn, Nank, and very well told.

    I enjoyed every word.


  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I give that five Lemon Lime & Bitters out of five Nank.

  4. Thanks Chaps uncle Les will be pleased

  5. ‘Keep Safe’ has been usurped by the form guide comment:

    ‘Not a dry boat.’

  6. I also love the automatic inclusion on the basis of the Kriegsmarine. Go Harold!

  7. Superb Nank – thank you look forward to chatting about participating in the great race its always fascinated me from a land lover in general

  8. Daryl Schramm says

    Loved it. Great story, well written. Out of interest, do any non sailor, non water types, gate crash the celebrations? Are the welcomed or frowned upon?

  9. Frank Taylor says

    Great story Nank, love the unusual, melting pot of disparate yachting characters wonderfully portrayed, thanks.
    Not a yachting man myself it had me enthralled.

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