Sydney to Hobart yachtie Vanessa Dudley on her passion for the high seas. By Cindy MacDonald.


Love for sail: Vanessa Dudley, 58, sailor

This year will be my 21st Sydney to Hobart. As a kid living in Sydney, you’d always get dragged along to a headland to watch the race start. Then, after becoming involved in sailing, you really want to do it yourself, so it’s a bit of a dream come true.

The whole build-up is huge. Sailing is normally just a participation sport rather than a spectator sport, so you’re doing it purely because you love it. But this is the one time of the year where everyone takes an interest and there’s media coverage. The actual day of the race there’s so much noise and activity and helicopters and spectator boats – it’s just such a big institution for Boxing Day. By the time you actually get started, it’s all super exciting. Especially the past few years where I’ve been on a 100-footer, Ragamuffin, sailing at crazy speeds trying to be first out of the heads. There’s quite a big potential for a collision in such a limited space, and you have to be on high alert. By the time you get out you’re quite exhausted and then it’s like, “Ah, now we’ve got to sail to Hobart.”

In 1984 there weren’t that many women involved in offshore racing. My opportunity came about just because I was involved in small-boat sailing and the owners of yachts were looking for the younger talent to bring in to their crews. I was lucky enough to get picked up by a guy called Bill Gilbert who had a boat called Southern Cross. I was the least experienced with a very experienced crew. 1984 was actually a really really bad Hobart and lots of boats got damaged and pulled out. Because those guys were so experienced and they were all very calm, I thought, “God, it must always be like this.” In the middle of the night the back of the boat broke open and all this water came in. It was pitch black in extremely rough conditions and it was very hard to work out what was happening. Lifejackets were handed around, so that would be up there with my scariest Sydney to Hobart. I didn’t do another one for a few years. I didn’t get scared away but, yeah, I thought, “These Hobart guys are hardcore.”

It’s probably a little bit hard to understand why people want to put themselves in very unpleasant and potentially dangerous situations. Especially since the 1998 Sydney to Hobart [where six sailors lost their lives]. We certainly got battered when the storm hit and we withdrew from that one also. Of all the Hobarts I’ve done, I’ve only had to withdraw from three. Most of the time it’s not terrifying and you manage the boat and reduce your sails to match the conditions. It’s quite an endurance event but you’re with people you trust and you know what has to be done. When you’re steering the boat in really hard conditions your heart’s really beating in your chest just from the responsibility of it and wanting to do a good job.

When it’s really wild in the Tasman it can also be really beautiful. And there’s definitely a feeling of achievement when you get to the finish. Hobart is a fantastic place to sail into – the Derwent River is so beautiful – so the payoff is huge. You can be disappointed in how you went that particular year but it still doesn’t take away from the feeling of achievement of getting there.

I never really expected to get the chance to sail on a supermaxi like Ragamuffin. They are a whole different level, they’re so fast. That boat would easily in running conditions do about 30 knots [55km/h], which is faster than most offshore powerboats. The big yachts really belt along. Last year a wind came through on the first night and we were right next to Wild Oats, and they ended up having to withdraw. We actually got in trouble, too, tipped over on our side with the mast in the water, so basically capsized. We had a big crew of 20 and fixing everything and all the manoeuvres involved lots of people. It’s not like a small boat where two of you can pick up a sail. On these boats all the gear is heavy and huge. 

This year it’s from one extreme to the other – I’m on a 40-footer called Jackpot. It’s a Sydney boat that hasn’t gone in the race before, owned by a guy called Adrian Van Bellen. We’ve got four women and six men in the crew. It’s fun having a mixed group. I’ll be a watch captain and one of four steerers. For all the Hobart races that I’ve done I’ve never actually been on a winning boat. I’ve come second in line honours in 2012 and 2015 and I’ve been third on corrected time [2011] and had divisional placings, but third overall is the best I’ve ever done. There is another woman on the boat who is also doing her 21st Hobart, Gail Harland.

I also love my dinghy sailing and I’ve discovered a really great masters’ sailing scene. I’m actually the world champion in the grand masters laser radial division. There are three things I love about sailing – one is that it’s an all-age pastime, you don’t have to stop at any age; another is that you can compete equally as men and women; and the third is that it’s so varied, there’s everything from dinghy sailing to big-boat sailing. I also really love the fact that it’s physical but it’s also cerebral.

I think being on the ocean is incredibly beautiful and I like the team spirit that you get on a racing yacht. I like the cut and thrust of racing. It’s just 24 hours a day constantly tweaking the sails and changing them to match the conditions so the boat’s perfectly in trim. And when it’s perfectly in trim it just feels so good to steer it. It feels like it almost steers itself. They are really beautiful machines, so it’s very exhilarating to get a yacht to go how it’s designed to go. It just feels fantastic.


1 . This week’s highlights…

• Cricket: Australia v Pakistan, 2nd Test

Starts Boxing Day, 10.30am (AEDT), Melbourne Cricket Ground

• Sailing: Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race 

Starts Boxing Day, 1pm (AEDT), Sydney Harbour

• Cricket: BBL – Brisbane Heat v Hobart Hurricanes

Friday, 6.10pm (AEST), the Gabba, Brisbane

• Soccer: W-League – Melbourne City v Adelaide United

Monday, January 2, 7.15pm (AEDT), C. B. Smith Reserve, Melbourne

• Basketball: NBL – Adelaide 36ers v Illawarra Hawks 

Thursday, January 5, 7pm (ACST), Titanium Security Arena, Adelaide

• Tennis: Australian Open

January 16-29, Melbourne Park

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 24, 2016 as "Love for sail".

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Cindy MacDonald is The Saturday Paper’s deputy editor.

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