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BJ Caldwell writes...

1999 Sydney to Hobart Race
1st place PHS Div 2
Elliot 36ft 'Phillip's Foote'

It's going well after five yacht deliveries and a victory in the 1999 Sydney to Hobart Race with 20 year old Liz Wardley on her Elliot 36ft 'Phillips Foote'. An S&S 34 is in my possession, together we will sail very away. A few Australian and American sailors are collaborating with polished visions of miles and places.

In this seafaring nation, where a girl I wave goodbye to in Hobart soon gets rolled upside-down aboard the 60ft race contestant 'Innkeeper'. She appears on the television news broken but vows to me later, it is only her beginning. Natasza was plucked from the Southern Ocean into the start of her sailing career. Meanwhile, the youngest skipper in the race - Liz Wardley tells me she'd do fifty more Hobarts. This was just a year after Liz experienced and escaped from ocean racing's worst ever tragedy.

We'd driven Liz's yacht until we found a very hard won victory. After vast numbers of round-up/knockdowns, incredible surfing across wildly confused Tasmanian waves and a freezing 55 knot blow, the youngest crew in the race arrived into the Derwent River laughing and relatively unscathed. Though, you could say the young faces showed a trace of the three day 'fight club' of sorts.

Only the day before, we were fight clubbing away in the grasp of the Southern Ocean gale, while 'Phillip's Foote' dropped off the sheer vertical faces of thirty foot waves. Inside the cabin awash with condensation and diesel fumes, I was braced in with my four watch-mates. I'm busy dipping Gatorade powder into my mouth right from the tin as we tell some pretty off-beat jokes. All the while, we flinch as solid green water explodes across the topsides. It's just war out, bombs, mortars, field nukes...the lot.

I'd met Liz in Southport as they headed for Sydney to the start of the race from her home in PNG. I'd just walked up and said I reckoned that since I was down under, I should try and do the Hobart, did she know of anyone short of crew? She said yes, they needed one more and she would give me a call once they got to Sydney. The rest is history.

Last year isn't far away here. Talk of the six that died and a fleet completely broken remain in the thoughts of all those that have returned to the Sydney to Hobart. Especially as damage reports started on just the first night from Sydney. We were extremely fortunate to avoid breakages and stay in the 'hunt'. I don't think we could have sailed a more superior race. Liz had some of the best sails, crew and motivation in a fleet of notoriously talented sailors.

We had an immaculate new kevlar main, the best looking asymmetrical chute I've seen since aboard Bruno Peyron's 'Explorer' and none other than a carbon fiber 'Code Zero' like Paul Cayard utilized in the Whitbread Race!

Once we were firmly in the lead of our class, we continued pushing but allowed just a trace of conservatism as we covered the fleet. We'd just go to the heavier chute a bit faster and try to minimize the wipeouts. A bit difficult sometimes though as the breeze jumped from between 25 to 40 knots true windspeed.

The weather forecast had said a low was developing over southern Victoria which would have been north of us. But as it turned out, we were bewildered when the sun came out and the breeze died in the middle of Bass Straight. I asked Liz what the forecasted central pressure was for the low and she said - 1000 millibars. I looked at my Suunto watch and sure enough, the pressure was just between 999 and 1000 millibars! We were in the center of the developing gale. That night, we were sailing upwind into a southerly that gusted to 55 knots.

One of the things I remember was this huge breaking wave that launched me from the tiller. My watch-partner Bryce grabbed the back of my harness as I reached the end of my tether and hauled me back to the weather rail. We had a bit on. Just a day earlier, Bryce had been steering as we exceeded 20 knots on a huge surf and the boat disappeared through the wave in front indefinitely. I was holding my breath for five minutes before we exploded onto the surface without slowing. I've never been so far under water on the deck of a yacht before. The force of the water opened all the Spinlock rope clutches and the off-watch rushed up afterwards and said it went completely dark below-decks and their ears were popping. We're lucky the mast didn't go for a walk-about over the bow or pitch-pole.

After the gale, as we crossed Storm Bay and entered the Derwent River, we did nonstop sail changes and peels. We'd won our division: PHS Div. 2!

We gave each other a few good handshakes before the start of the millennium party on the docks in Tasmania.

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