Aussie race tries to get back on even keel

The Sydney to Hobart yacht race set sail yesterday with many people

For Steve Kulmar, they are the memories that won't go away: waking up inside a capsized boat, helplessly watching a friend being pulled away by towering seas, seeing another boat sail on without acknowledging him or the other crew members of the Sword of Orion as they battled for their lives.

For 18 of the last 20 years, Mr. Kulmar has spent his Christmas preparing to go to sea in one of the world's toughest sailing races, the Sydney to Hobart. But because of those memories of what a year ago became one of the worst tragedies in ocean-racing history, he planned to be at a jazz festival with his family when this year's race began yesterday.

"I need to create some distance between myself and the Sydney to Hobart," he says. "The experience that I had last year gave me an opportunity to reconsider what I value. As much as I love my sailing, I value my life and my family more."

The death of six sailors in last year's Sydney to Hobart as a massive storm tore through the race's 115-boat fleet, sinking five, drew attention across the world. But for Australians, who watched mystified as sailors were plucked from towering seas by helicopters, the storm also tore through an icon.

The Sydney to Hobart brings together two things that form a big part of the country's ethos - water and competition - and watching its start in Sydney Harbor each year on Dec. 26 is a national ritual.

Tens of thousands set out early to gain vantage points around the harbor's shores, and hundreds of boats accompany the fleet as they make for the open ocean and the right turn toward Hobart 630 nautical miles to the south.

"Australia is surrounded by ocean. But Australians are also passionate about their sport, and Australians like to win and they play hard. That's just part of the Australian psyche," says Bruce Gould, a veteran of 32 of the 54 Sydney to Hobarts run to date.

Like other island nations, the ocean plays a huge part in Australians' lives. While Australia is the size of the continental United States, it has a population of just 18.5 million people that is concentrated within an hour's drive of its coasts. That makes the beach and other things like sailing and fishing the core elements of most Australians' leisure time.

What adds to that is the fact Australia is undoubtedly one of the world's great sailing nations. Its greatest triumph came in 1983 when Australia II tore the America's Cup away from the New York Yacht Club for the first time in history.

And the achievements still pile up steadily. Earlier this year, Jesse Martin, an 18-year-old from the southern city of Melbourne, became the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world unassisted. And earlier this month, Jack Christoffersen set off on a bid to be the oldest person to achieve the same feat. Already in the record books is Kay Cottee, the first woman to sail solo around the world.

The Sydney to Hobart, some claim, has also long carried another Australian trait that has set it apart from the normal yachting pack. It has, according to some, the distinction of being one of the most democratic sailing races in the world. "It's always been a race the average person could get out and do," says Ed Psaltis, the owner and skipper of AFR Midnight Rambler, last year's winner on handicap.

Millionaires and their professional crews have dominated the front of the pack for years - the founder of California computer company Oracle, Larry Ellison, led the charge in last year's race aboard his high-tech yacht Sayonara. But the rest of the fleet has long been the domain of more down-to-earth "yachties" with the kind of passion that makes them part with their savings. Aboard boats in the Sydney to Hobart last year were laborers, tilers, and even miners.

Yet last year's tragedy has caused big changes to the Sydney to Hobart. Most obvious is the fact that this year there are just 80 boats in the fleet. But the one some people fear most is a change in the race's character. What was once a fleet full of diligent amateurs is growing increasingly professional, some worry.

The yacht club that hosts the race, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, has instituted stringent new safety regulations. There is even talk of boats sharing vital weather information during the race, something that didn't happen last year.

The tragedy, says Michael Spies, skipper of the maxi yacht Nokia, has "dragged the [sailing] fraternity together" as it prepares for what can't help but be an anniversary.

But for whatever pluses it may carry, last year's tragedy also left a bitter taste in many people's mouths and added unwanted emotional baggage to an icon. Mr. Gould, who spent 24 hours being tumbled around by the ocean in a lifeboat and lost three crewmates from the boat Winston Churchill, is back again this year for his 33rd race to Hobart. "You have to get back on the horse," he offers as an explanation. However, he is still angry about the way lifeboats disintegrated when they were needed and the lives lost because of that.

The skipper and owner of the Winston Churchill, Richard Winning, won't talk about the race for fear he may face charges when the Australian equivalent of a grand jury convenes next year to examine the events of the 1998 race. Kulmar, for his part, has been critical at every opportunity he gets of the skipper who decided to sail past him and the rest of the stricken crew on Sword of Orion, violating race rules and the unwritten code between yachtsmen.

Yet all the controversy comes with a curious paradox in this age of extreme sports. For many last year's race confirmed what those who have been sailing it for years have known all along - it is one of the toughest ocean races in the world.

"People have been reminded of the fact that the Sydney to Hobart is a bit like climbing Everest," Kulmar says. "It is an extreme event."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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