Of the six multihull entrants only three fronted the starting-line, due in part to the presence of a deepening depression in the Coral Sea. On the starting-line were Captain Bligh, a brand new professionally built Kraken 40, Australian Maid, a much modified 24 foot wide Piver A-A 36 with 45-foot rotating mast rig and Turrama, a mast-head-rigged Nimble.
The keel boat fleet of twenty-five included Pilgrim the latest Sparkman & Stephens One Ton Cupper and other crack ocean racers.
There was some local press speculation regarding the possibility of 'The Captain' breaking the twenty-four hours for the 309 nautical miles or at least giving the twenty-six hours record held by Mania II a fright. However, the race-day forecast for light north-easterlies swinging to moderate south-easterlies held little prospect for a record run and certainly gave no indication of the survival conditions which were to come. Only ten hours after race start the forecasters were predicting gale and hurricane force winds at Breaksea Spit should the depression, now cyclone 'Emily', continue to travel South-East.
For the race leaders in both fleets there was no choice. They were located in the dangerous quarter necessitating a beat into ever worsening conditions to reach the shelter of Mooloolaba harbour. However, Mooloolaba was many miles south and would undoubtedly be closed before it could be reached. There was thus no shelter to be had and all yachts were on a lee shore. The six leaders of the monos and two trimarans therefore elected to stay in the race.
We on board the Captain Bligh were far ahead of the monos, having discovered that we could sail almost twice as fast to windward in the prevailing light north-easterly.
Figuring on an average 10 knots for ourselves in gale conditions and a maximum of 15 knots for 'Emily' we should make it to Gladstone without getting closer than 100 miles from 'Emily's' eye. It was desirable to be close the coast near Gladstone before dusk to be able to determine our position from land features. It was also desirable to hit Gladstone's 'fairway' buoy light at night as the buoy itself is too small to locate in daylight in rough conditions.
For the others remaining in the race, they would beat 'Emily' home provided she travelled at ten knots. Should she speed up, as seemed likely, they would have to ride it out in the confines of Hervey Bay.
As the wind swung easterly and then south-easterly, 'The Captain' began to move. A sister ship to Ringo, she is much lighter and carries a full-battened main. The full-battened main we were to bless before the ordeal was over.
We went from reacher to No. 1 Genoa and then to No. 3 in an hour, so quickly did the strength rise. We carried full-main and 250 square feet No. 3 to Breaksea Spit averaging around 17 knots and arriving adjacent to the light-vessel only a little behind Manta II's record time. A record was possible but as our course was now beam-on to the seas prudence was dictated.
A few rolls were put in the main but the size of the seas and a few screaming gusts convinced us to drop the headsail altogether. The wind strength was around Force 8-9 but the seas were considerably larger. Apart from the build-up in the shoal area around the spit and the two-knot southerly current, two wave systems interacted to form occasional peaking monsters. A north- easterly swell from astern had us surfing furiously and at times this would coincide with a breaking crest from the South-East. This would lift the boat bodily 20 feet sideways despite the centreboard being full-down. The crest would break right over the boat, deluging those below via the companionway and various inadequately baffled ventilators. The only compensation was the warmth of the water.
During the reach across Hervey Bay conditions steadily worsened and more turns were rolled onto the boom, eventually settling with the headboard just below the intermediate shroud attachment point.
Experience with high performance multihulls has shown that reefing down the main and changing down headsails moves the whole sail plan forwards resulting in lee helm. In a keeler the natural tendency to screw up to weather with increasing heel overcomes this problem. Not so with a multihull. A multihull, therefore, sails under main alone in extreme conditions except when on a run.
Had we carried a soft mainsail and allowed it to flog, I am sure we would have lost the sail and been in dire straits. There was a problem with the full-length battens and very deep roller reefing requiring removal of some battens. Not an easy task in these conditions. Jiffy tie reefing would be a better proposition for full-batten mainsails.
The top half of the mainsail twisted off as we did not want to place excessive strain on the leech. Wool tell-tales indicated that both sides of the sail in this area were in the mast wake and contributing nothing. Even so, we averaged over 10 knots. This was just as well, as 'Emily' had sped up and was now headed directly for Gladstone at 16 knots. On the afternoon radio schedule we could hear the monohulls reporting their positions around Breaksea Spit. It looked as though they and Australia Maid were to be caught very close to the cyclone's eye. Pilgrim sensibly elected to reach out to sea to gain sea room clear of the numerous reefs and islands. The others decided to attempt Gladstone or ride it out inside Hervey Bay.
Our log had broken some 40 miles short of Breaksea Spit light-vessel, and navigator Chas Drew had a hard job estimating our speed. Plotting a course midway between Lady Elliot and Lady Musgrave Islands, we aimed to arrive off Bustard Head well to the South of Gladstone. This would ensure no beating to windward, a most essential decision!
As it turned out Chas allowed for 10° leeway, we made about 5° and the crew instinctively sailed high of our course dreading the thought of any windward work. The result, a landfall well south of Bustard Head in very poor visibility.
The poor visibility plus the broken log put us in some doubt as to our position. As it turned out Chas' guesswork was spot on and we ran past Bustard Head with 85 square foot jib hoisted in addition to the reefed main. On a run it was amazing how easily the boat handled the conditions. A most noticeable feature was that speed helps handling and we must have averaged around 20 knots on this leg.
The flash of the fairway buoy was visible from about 300 yards and the headsail was dropped for our new course of about 60° to the true wind for 1 1/2 miles into the leading marks for Gladstone Harbour. Here the full force of the wind was really felt. By now we were in winds of Force 12. With the windage of the hulls overcoming the small reefed main the tiller had to be kept hard a lee to keep the bows up. Leeway was around 15°, speed about five knots and we only just managed to scrape around the windward mark before bearing off to run down the harbour. How we would have tacked I don't know. We had enough control to gybe but would probably have lost the mainsail in the process. Visibility was about 100 yards, opening the eyes to windward was impossible and any movements on deck were on hands and knees, hanging on with both hands.
Even in the cockpit you had to hang on for fear of being thrown off balance and being plucked out by the wind.
A very tired, wet and thankful crew staggered ashore at Auckland Creek wharf only to be barraged by microphones, whirring TV cameras and lots of ridiculous questions along the lines of -'Weren't you afraid of capsizing in a trimaran?' Skipper Brian Willey could truthfully answer that never at any stage was there the slightest apprehension regarding capsizing. In fact under reefed main the float transoms were barely immersed, we were using one-fifth of the boat's ultimate stability.
And what of the other yachts? Pilgrim reported the 'eye' passing over her about the time we tied up. In the poor visibility positions were at best guesswork and many yachts requested radio bearings from Gladstone radio.
Australian Maid placed some reliance on aircraft beacons at Rockhampton and Bundaberg and this was her undoing. Her six a.m. radio schedule position was 30 miles off Bustard Head when in fact they were probably only 10 miles off. Skipper Bob Brown related that she was handling the conditions easily under storm jib with himself on the wheel. The Hengest-Horsa anemometer was jammed one-third past the 60-knot mark continuously.
At about eight a.m. Bob looked up to see cliffs and Bustard Head lighthouse about 100 yards to leeward. Not having room to turn downwind he rounded up, the jib disintegrated and she lay beam on to the seas. The motor, a Ford 10, could make no progress and whilst a new headsail was being hanked on, a wave picked her up and threw her on to her side with the mast on the bottom, so shallow was the water. With the next wave, a lower shroud chainplate pulled out collapsing the mast and completing the capsize. Bob was thrown into the water, then washed back on to the boat. He tangled his leg in some rigging, broke free, was washed on to rocks and eventually made it ashore and up to Bustard Head lighthouse. Ken Mackay, who was down below getting life-jackets, could not find the hatchway due to the amount of dirt in the water. The hatch had jammed shut and he located it via the switchboard by feel and eventually escaped. Both he and Morrie Sweeney were clinging to the permanently bent underwing ropes on opposite sides of the wing-deck. Neither knew the other was there and each thought he was the sole survivor.
Ken elected to step into three feet of water as the boat was blown into the entrance of Jenny Lind Creek and Morrie rode it out one mile upstream into the mangroves. The two other crew members on board were unfortunately drowned.
The keelers did not escape lightly either. Rival, a 32-footer was rolled twice through 360° and came up mastless. The skipper received a broken arm in the process. Kintama, around 40 foot LOA, hit the bottom between the inner and outer rocks off Bustard Head and then hit again on the shoals North of Gladstone. All this and she eventually made it for line honours. Mary Blair reported a gust of 132 m.p.h., though how they measured it don't know. Officially 'Emily' was the most intense for the season, 28.7 and 120 m.p.h. winds.
One yacht, the 27-foot steel-hulled Istria, en-route from Brisbane to Gladstone, not in the race, was lost with all four crew. Two other lives were lost on a trawler which foundered on Lady Musgrave Island.
Members of the Queensland Multihull Yacht Club, who made it through floods caused by the 10 to 12 inch rainfall, had the joy of successfully righting and refloating the 12,000 lb Australian Maid in two days with a few simple hand tools including a three-ton Tirfor tree puller. Damage to hull structure is minor, equipment less major, about $5,000.
Modern yachts, both mono and multi, are outstandingly seaworthy. Good multihulls are at least as seaworthy as good monos but structural integrity is essential.
High performance means less exposure time.
Full-battened mainsails, or at least the top half, are a boon in heavy conditions.
Despite satellite forecasting you can still get caught out in a hopeless position in the cyclone season. There is no way of determining that a cyclone is approaching from normal weather signs until it is too late.
Underwing lines save lives.
Weather bureau positions given for the eye of the cyclone were up to 40 miles out.
Tropical cyclone conditions are not quite as bad as your imagination thinks they are going to be!
Captain Bligh's time 33 hours.
First Keeler - Kintama 54 hours.