A few days before we get to Sydney to meet up with the Clipper Race arriving from Albany, Australia, I get an email from the CYCA (Cruising Yacht Club of Australia), saying there is a boat looking for last-minute crew in the Sydney to Hobart Race, and would Ryan and I be interested?
Would I?! Hell, yeah!
The boat is a Davidson 34 called Illusion, and its picture hangs on the wall of CYCA because it won the Sydney to Hobart Race back in 1988. And, yes, this is quite a little boat to be out in the kind of seas the Sydney to Hobart Race is infamous for, but I am itching to get back on a boat, any boat, so I can chase the thrilling high of racing across the Southern Ocean.
So I send in my and Ryan’s sailing resumes to CYCA and within a few days of our arrival to Sydney, Ryan gets a call from Travis Read, the Skipper of Illusion.
“Oh hi, Travis! Yes, great to hear from you…yes, it was quite an experience doing Clipper…yeah, really fast…30 knots, surfing down waves…well, I usually work the foredeck…oh, you’re looking for a helmsman? You really want to talk to my wife, then. That’s her thing.”
I am frantically wiping the sweat off the palms of my hands as Ryan hands the phone over. “He wants to talk to you.”
“What do I say?!” I whisper. “I’ve never interviewed for a crew position before!”
Ryan mouths back, “Just tell him you can do it! You helmed across the Southern Ocean. This is a five-day race…piece of cake!”
“Hi Travis! I hear you need a helmsman! Yeah, the Southern Ocean was wild…hurricane force winds, but we kept sailing! Well, I learned to sail on a J-24 and we cruise on a Catalina 34, so I am familiar with smaller boats…oh, it has a tiller? How interesting…”
I’m now making panicked faces at Ryan while mouthing, “A tiller?!” While he waves his hand to say, “Piece of cake!”
I get off the phone feeling less confident than I sounded in my interview, but I’m also feeling like an opportunity like this only comes up once in a lifetime. I’m in Sydney right before one of the world’s most famous yacht races – I’d be crazy not to jump at the chance to sail in the Sydney to Hobart race.
“So what did he say?” Ryan prods.
“He says I’m his second choice for the helm and I should go see the boat when we get to Sydney.” I should be smiling, but I’m cringing anxiously. “His first choice is a guy who’s sailed Illusion before, but he’s in Taiwan.”
“That’s great news!” Ryan says, as I shoot him a nervous look. “What?! It’s a seaworthy boat! I mean, she’s small, but she’s seaworthy.”
“A tiller?! On the ocean?!”
“Eh, whatever! It’s the same thing…well, except turning is the opposite…”
When we get to Sydney, Ryan and I are immediately swept up in crew celebrations and late-night drinking sessions with our boats. So, one night, I grab Eric, the skipper of Henri Lloyd, and I tell him about the helm opening on Illusion and beg him to come have a look at the boat with me.
With beers in hand, Eric, Ryan and a few of my tipsy teammates walk along the docks to find Illusion, as I desperately search for some sign that either my skipper thinks helming in the Sydney to Hobart on a tillered boat is no big deal, or that this could be the death of me.
“Huh,” Eric says, looking the slender race boat up and down, from mast to deck. “It’s so… cute. Like a big race boat…but little. Look, it’s got a little staysail, little running backstays…”
“What about the tiller?” I ask.
“Well, you know. It’s still a boat. Same idea.”
I’m staring at Eric, trying to read in his face whether he thinks it would be suicidal for me to helm for five days in a high profile race when the last time I used a tiller was in 2003, or if I’m just being overly dramatic and it really is no big deal.
But all he says is, “You’re going to do it, right?”
“Will you come pick me up if I radio Henri Lloyd for a rescue?” I ask.
“You probably won’t get through,” he says, smiling. “It’s a small boat. You’ll be pretty far behind…”
In the end, I don’t know if I got lucky or unlucky, but Travis called the next day to say his first-choice helmsman was flying in from Taiwan, so he’d filled all his positions for the Sydney to Hobart.
I thanked Travis, then sighed with relief, though a small twinge of disappointment prodded me from within. Clearly, it wasn’t meant to be. And yet, in my disappointment, I recognized something else…a feeling like this was something I really wanted to pursue, something I was missing out on.
“There will be other races,” Ryan said, putting his arm around me.
“I guess,” I said. “I just really wanted to get back on a boat. Any boat. I miss the racing.”
Ryan looked at me and laughed. “This, from the girl who once said she would never EVER live on a boat.”
“Did I say that?!”
Illusion came in 2nd in its division in the Sydney to Hobart Race and was 77th across the line out of 94 boats. Henri Lloyd had to forfeit the race because of a rudder problem and motor to Hobart.