As the southern half of Australia prepares endures the final month of winter, sailors from every corner of the country are preparing to descend on the Whitsundays for the annual Audi Hamilton Island Race Week.
The regatta is renowned in sailing circles not just for challenging conditions, but also the festivities that accompany it. Midway through the cold days of winter, it is a welcome sojourn for many who lap up the warm Queensland sun and coastal breezes.
The usually tranquil island is inundated with “grotty yachties”, competitive sailors, those looking to cruise the islands with a beer or two in hand, and all the hangers-on who jump on board to enjoy the off-water activities peppered throughout the week.
For those competing in the regatta, it is not all fun and games. The challenges of the Whitsundays, now in its 31st year, create fierce battles.
Stories are often shared about the trials and tribulations suffered by the sailors in past regattas. In its early days, one overnight race was known to be particularly difficult because the winds tended to drop right off following sunset. One year, a whale gave birth in the middle of a race.
And in 2013, like many other years, one unlucky yacht snagged on rocks not far from the start line, forced to wait until high tide to attempt to negotiate a safe exit.
The Whitsundays have stunning turquoise water and imposing cliffs, but with that beauty comes wind blocks due to the islands, tides that are difficult to negotiate and the odd whale or two to navigate around.
The winds are equally unpredictable. Some years, heavy conditions known as trade winds make for fast conditions and swell to contend with. Other years, winds are consistently light, sometimes to the point where the race is postponed until the wind picks up again, or even abandoned until the following day.
Two hulls are better than one
This year, the craze for multi-hulls that has swept through Europe and other parts of the world has caught on, making up 21 of more than 180 entries competing in the regatta.
One of those is Christian Ainsworth, whose 18.8-metre luxury catamaran Ha Ha is one of the entries in the regatta.
Multi-hulls enable a lot more volume beneath the vessel, says Ainsworth, which helps around the Whitsundays because the boat can better negotiate shallow water.
“The multi-hull division is a new division of race week,” says Ainsworth, who owns a Lagoon 620, the flagship model of the Lagoon series. It is a versatile boat, he says, and able to perform well in any wind conditions.
The best thing about the regatta, Ainsworth says, is the scenery. “The best part is the backdrop: the beautiful islands, and the trade winds, and the colour of the water, and the warm water during the southern winter. And the people.”
Competitive new class
Another new race entrant is the one-design class McConaghy 38. More than half of its Australian fleet are heading to the Whitsundays to compete in the regatta.
Among them is Marcus Blackmore, who has won the Grand Prix division of Race Week for the last three years in a row. His new MC38 arrived in the last week of July.
“The MC38 is strictly one design and owner-driver rules, and you limit the number of professionals you can have on board,” he says.
Blackmore says he and property developer Lang Walker, car dealer Neville Crichton and ex-banker Robin Crawford all decided to buy an MC38 each in order to “race one another, but on a level playing field”. “This is a high-performance, get-up-and-go boat,” he says.
MC38s are full carbon and, as the name suggests, 38 feet long. The class rules are strict, limiting the number of professionals able to sail and requiring the boats be left in the water every week to ensure one does not have an advantage over another.
At Hamilton Island, the MC38 division will undertake mostly windward-leeward type races, which are common in Olympic divisions.
Full spectrum of entrants
The highly competitive nature of the class indicates the spectrum of entrants in the regatta.
“A lot of the cruising guys, they don’t want to do Olympic racing. They want to sit out and have a beer and look at the beautiful islands and watch the whales,” says Blackmore.
“We are a different kettle of fish. It’s a highly competitive class and there are some very capable sailors. It’s just a flat-out formula one racing machine.”
When asked if he can take out the title again this year, Blackmore is coy. “I think we’ve got the job in front of us because a lot of our competitors have been sailing these boats for a couple of years,” he says.
The crew will only have a couple of days to prepare and become accustomed to the conditions, he adds.
But despite the disadvantage, they could still come out on top. “We are in with a chance because I’ve got a very good crew,” Blackmore says.
Other contenders include Karl Kwok’s Beau Gueste and the Oatleys’ Wild Oats XI.
The regatta kicks off on Sunday, August 16 and racing concludes the following Saturday. There are a number of races around the islands, as well as some more competitive courses for the Grand Prix and IRC divisions.
This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review's Life & Leisure magazine.