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ASTOR at the sailpast of veteran Sydney to Hobart yachts before the start of the 60th anniversary event in 2004.

Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race


One of Australia's most popular sporting events from the public's perspective is the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race. The race start on Boxing Day and the passage down the east coast grabs national attention over the Christmas and New Year break, and gives ocean racing a regular moment in the spotlight. It is internationally recognised as a blue-water classic ocean race.

The event began in an off-the-cuff fashion. In the latter part of World War II sailors on Sydney Harbour formed the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) to promote cruising and a casual races in lieu of those suspended during the war. At the end of the war three of the members Jack Earl, Peter Luke and Bert Walker planned a cruise to Hobart. One evening Commander John Illingworth gave a talk to members, and afterwards Peter Luke suggested Illingworth might like to join the cruise. Illingworth's reply was "I will, if you make a race of it". This sparked a reaction, as noted in the Australian Power Boat and Yachting Monthly of October 10, 1945.

Yacht Race to Tasmania: It is expected that an Ocean Yacht Race may take place from Sydney to Hobart, probably starting on December 26, 1945. Yachtsmen desirous of competing should contact Vice President Mr P Luke….. Entries close December 1 1945.

From these small beginnings the cruise became a race and Illingworth helped with the arrangements, showing the club how to measure the boats and handicap the event. On Boxing Day in 1945, nine yachts set forth including Illingworth in his recently purchased yacht RANI. He had previous experience of ocean racing from his homeland in England and in the USA, where he was a respected competitor. The other sailors had a more relaxed attitude.

The First Race

That first race encapsulated a lot of things now associated with the event, and in hindsight was a warning of things to come. A strong southerly gale hit the fleet on the first day, and many were unprepared for the rough seas which scattered the fleet. Some boats hove to, one retired and the others sought shelter,. WANDERER's crew went ashore twice, once to phone home and the other to enjoy a seafood meal before resuming the race. Meanwhile the experienced Illingworth continued to race. When the gale eased an aircraft was dispatched to look for the fleet, and RANI was so far ahead that it was not located and presumed missing. The press had the event as their headline article, and later the sudden reappearance of RANI off Tasman Island was a sensation. RANI won easily and the remaining seven boats gradually crossed the line in Hobart bringing more stories of the race ashore for the public to enjoy.

This massive press coverage ensured the race would continue, and in its second year it went ahead, but with tighter regulations based on those used by the Royal Ocean Racing Club of Britain.

It has been run without exception ever since, and the fortunes of the event have been varied. There has been consistent strong public interest, and crowds line the harbour and its foreshores to watch what is now a tradition, the Boxing Day start. Media interest is not confined to the east coast, it is followed throughout the country and the results are reported internationally. The attention is often on who will finish first, and the focus on this line honours contest has been encouraged to maintain the media interest. Vessels from overseas have raced regularly with the local fleet since the early 1960s, and the race has been won on handicap and line honours by a modest number of craft from outside Australia.

It quickly became recognized as one of the major offshore races, along with the famous Fastnet race in the UK and the Bermuda race starting in the USA, due to the tough and demanding conditions the fleet usually has the overcome. In response to this, the CYCA established good safety precautions quite early on, which for many years it updated relative to the evolution of the craft participating. They often established precautions or limits not enforced in other events. From 1951 onwards there has been a radio relay vessel accompanying the fleet, and safety items carried by the boats and crew remain a priority in the organization of the race.


The 1998 race captured world attention for the wrong reasons, when the most extreme conditions in the race history were encountered. A strong southerly flowing current was mixed with a south west gale caused by an almost cyclonic depression traveling east across Bass Strait. This had developed soon after the race began and was predicted by many weather forecasters. Winds of over 80 knots were recorded, but the opposing wind and current directions produced difficult seas with an unusual number of enormous waves which caused the most damage. Yachts were knocked down beyond 90 degrees, and some rolled completely. Numerous yachts were unable to withstand the continuous battering and were forced to heave to or otherwise adopt survival techniques before retiring with damage. A small number were abandoned and later sunk, and six lives were lost off three boats in different circumstances.

The rescue effort was chaotic for a period as there were too many calls to respond to, but the heroic efforts by the civilian and service rescue helicopter crews, filmed by press helicopters working in the same extreme conditions, saved many sailors and avoided an absolute catastrophe.

In the reviews and enquiries that followed a number of factors emerged that had contrbuted to the disaster. The race organizers then moved quickly to address the deficiencies in the equipment and experience which had been highlighted by the race conditions and the fleet's inability to cope with them. The event is now run at an extremely high level of safety awareness. However, the 2004 event again brought difficult conditions and many retirements, including the two high-tech maxi yachts leading the fleet. This brought renewed concern that international ocean racing authorities were not properly addressing the issue of seaworthy hull design and construction.

Highlights and Records

The race has had other highlights in many areas. The 1999 race was run in almost perfect conditions with following north-east winds and the water ballasted Volvo 60 class yachts were able to take maximum advantage. NOKIA from that class set a new race record of 1 day 19 hours and 48 minutes at an average speed of 14.39 knots. This was 9 hours faster than KIALOA III's long standing record from 1975, which MORNING GLORY had briefly improved by 30 minutes in the mid 1990s.

The record now stands at 1 day, 18 hours and 23 minutes, set by WILD OATS in 2012. It has twice taken line honours, set the record and won on handicap (2005 and 2012). Rule changes since 1999 permitted vessels up to 30m metres in length, and with favorable conditions the new maxis built to this limit easily had the potential to improve the record. A curious line honours winner was NOCTURNE in 1953, an Alan Payne designed 10.66 m (35 ft) long sloop which mastered unusually light and fickle conditions to beat much larger craft in a slow race.

When Huey Long from the USA brought his aluminium yacht ONDINE in 1962, one of the closest finishes to that time occurred when ONDINE narrowly beat the steel SOLO across the line, but SOLO won on handicap.

The handicap winner is the true winner of the race, a fact sometimes obscured to the public as the bigger boats dominate the headlines. A small number of boats have 'done the double' and won both, including WILD OATS in 2005 which scored a treble with the race record as well. However more often the trophy goes to a well sailed yacht toward the middle of the finishing order, and sometimes the changeable weather patterns favour the smaller yachts toward the tail end. The most notable handicap winner is the Halvorsen Bros FREYA, which achieved the remarkable feat of winning three races in succession, from 1963 to 1965.

The end of the race is marked with celebrations by all the crews, and the area around Constitution Dock is packed with spectators, crews and their families who have come down to join them. In the same tradition as at the start, the people from Hobart turn out to see the finish, and even when this occurs overnight there is still a strong contingent on and off the water waiting for the gun to go off.

For many yachtsmen the Sydney to Hobart race is the highpoint of their season and their sport. Some aspire to do it just once, while others come back year after year. The challenging conditions might appear to be the primary draw card in many instances, but the attractions of blue water sailing has seduced many competitors in the long run. The moods and atmosphere of the wind and ocean, and the satisfaction of sailing a yacht in these elements is truly felt and understood by the great majority of the crews.

The combination of strong public interest and the enduring attraction of the race for the competitors would seem to ensure the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race will remain a regular event in the future of Australia's maritime heritage.