1799 to 2015 in 24 Hours: Dockside Hobart, Tasmania

1 Jan

Something about boats hits my heart strings like nothing else, except perhaps flamenco.

Boats have such physical beauty and grace, but more than that they carry the stories of all the people who sailed in them.


In the past twenty four hours I’ve (briefly) helmed a square-rigged tall ship on the Derwent River and wandered over every nook and cranny of the 2015 Sydney to Hobart yacht race runner up, Ruggamuffin 100. Both experiences left me leaking salty water.


This Tasmania trip was timed to bring us to Hobart to witness the first yachts cross the finish line. We’d been in Hobart a previous year too late to see the leaders come in, dammit. This time we left little to chance. Up at dawn we took the first ferry from Bruny Island to Kettering and headed directly dockside. Detailed race news had been frustratingly scarce on the island but we knew with the wild gale conditions of the second stage of the race (27% of boats retired) followed by very light winds no boats would beat us. Sure enough as we walked around Constitution Dock at 8:30am all was quiet and we calculated we had until early evening to sightsee and enjoy the ‘Taste of Tasmania’ food and wine event harbourside.


Tall ship replica, Lady Nelson, was moored at Elizabeth Dock but no one was about at that early hour. A poster detailed two short trips she would be making that day. $30 per person seemed a steal. I called the number on the poster and woke up the purser, Phillip. I asked if we could have two places for the 3pm sail. Amazingly he could fit us in. The rest of the day was really just killing time for me, I was so excited to be going aboard Lady Nelson. 

The 1.2k pier swimmng race was diverting, lots of super fit men and women running around in speedos shivering.

The original Lady Nelson, 60 foot and 60 ton, was built at Deptford, on the Thames River, in 1799 as a survey ship http://www.ladynelson.org.au


With her small size and three sliding centre keels that could be retracted to allow access to shallow waters she was designed to go up rivers and close to the coast. And despite not being well suited to ocean voyages her first captain, 26-year-old Lieutenant James Grant, sailed her from London to Port Jackson in what would be the colony of New South Wales in eight months without loss of life of a single crew member. His ship’s log records waves as tall as the mast at times. Most importantly Grant successfully sailed and charted Bass Strait west to east between the Australian mainland and Tasmania, the first ship to do so.


Lady Nelson undertook an enormous amount of surveying and transporting of people, animals and goods in her twenty five years of service http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00066.html Her final voyage north to obtain buffalo came to a tragic end. Pirates based on Pulau Babar in Maluku, Indonesia, murdered her crew, plundered the ship, ran it aground and set fire to it.


The reason, however, that the people of Tasmania were motivated to create a trust to build and maintain an exact working replica of Lady Nelson, was because she transported the first free settlers from mainland Australia to Tasmania in 1803. Another of her most significant and longest voyages was when she sailed to New Zealand in 1806 to return the Maori Chief Te-Pahi to his homeland.


Today Lady Nelson is a sail training and charter vessel, as well as taking paying customers on ninety minute harbour trips like ours. Any fears I had that we’d spend the time motoring were quickly dispelled. Within fifteen minutes of casting off we were under sail. I’m used to gaff-rigged tall ships like Provident, crewed by three people if needs must, whereas a square-rig requires three times as many. The friendly, dedicated volunteer crew let us civilians have a go at releasing and hauling up the sails and helming. They didn’t have to ask twice! 

 Lady Nelson coming in from the 11am sail. 

At one point we did a little dance with another gorgeous gaff-rigged ship, Rhona II, and reached five knots boat speed. I tried to imagine what it would have been like aboard Lady Nelson with 20 crew, sixty passengers, supplies, plus the pigs, sheep and goats they carried. I couldn’t.

 Rhona II – is she glorious?!

When we sailed past revellers dockside they cheered us as though we’d just crossed the race finish line. 

Back at Taste of Tasmania we celebrated our serendipitous sailing experience with glasses of Goaty Hill’s bubbles and Stuart had his much awaited Tasmania mussels. 

As the evening wore on it became clear race leaders for line honours, US super maxis Comanche and Rambler and Australian super maxi Ragamuffin were settled in positions one, two and theee and making very slow progress, but we were prepared to wait as long as it took. Skipper of Comanche’s gutsy decision to continue the race with only one dagger board and damaged steering ‘..even if we have to paddle into Hobart’ was all the incentive we needed.


At 8:30pm we staked our spot on the rocks by the water’s edge in front of the finish line bouys beside the race officials’ hut and well in front of the cannon that would be fired as the winner passed between the two bouys. A good-sized crowd was building but few spectators’ boats which we thought odd.


An hour and a quarter later, in complete darkness, the wisdom of the crowd confirmed Comanche was steadily making her way up river towards us. We knew this only by her tall navigation mast lights and the myriad pinpricks of red light hovering around her, each one a spectator boat following her in. A helicopter buzzed overhead for a time. 

With her black sails and red hull Comanche glided by like a ghost ship and the cheering and shouting began. A few seconds later the cannon boomed as she passed between the bouys. It was so loud I almost dropped my phone while filming the finish. Time 9:58pm. No race record but creditable. Stuart and I had a quick consultation as to whether we would call it a day or dash around to Constitution Dock to watch her berth. No question really. We grabbed our bicycles and made our way as quickly as we could dockside. Another short wait and a bit of jockeying in the huge crowd to find a vantage point. We could hear Comanche coming before we could see her motoring towards us stern first. One version of Queen’s ‘Fat Bottom Girl’ was blaring from the dockside and another from the boat. This has become her theme song since she has a very wide flat stern. We stayed until the crew stepped ashore for hugs, beers and champagne then jumped on our bicycles and headed to bed. 

We woke to news that Rambler and Ragamuffin were due in shortly so we dashed back dockside. Ragamuffin pipped Rambler by only four seconds to take second and by the time we arrived they had just berthed and both crews were celebrating. Amazingly all the yachts are accessible for spectators to view, no security or gates, so we walked down the finger dock to get as close as we could. When we approached Ragamuffin the legendary blue water yachtsman, owner-skipper 88-year-old Syd Fischer, who had just clocked his 48th Sydney-Hobart race, was being escorted down the dock. The crowd parted and many applauded. A radio journalist stopped him and asked for an interview which Syd graciously agreed to. Syd is frail and pale and seemed not to understand or perhaps hear all the questions put to him. Asked what he thought of the gale period Syd said, ‘I don’t remember’. He did however indicate that he wanted to have another crack in 2016. 

  Back over the bridge. 
Comanche in a different berth. 

 Missing dagger board. 
 The fat end of Comanche. 
Sydney Fischer

I could see civilians on Ragamuffin’s deck and heard a crew member say, ‘We aren’t Americans, we let anyone on board’. Bloody hell, they were letting people on! And in regular shoes! We joined an orderly queue and in ten minutes I was stepping onto Ragamuffin 100. In bare feet. 



I wandered all over her and marvelled at how sparsely she was equipped above and below deck. No galley as such, just a gimballed kettle and gas gas ring on both port and starboard side. The head/toilet is walled only on three sides, not even a curtain, and the bunks in the stern compartment are narrow and hard.          

Ragamuffin had lost a dagger board too and the one remaining had a chunk out of it.

As I was leaving I tapped a beer drinking crew member on the shoulder and asked him to convey my thanks to the person who’d given permission for us to come on board. He said with a smile, ‘That would be me’. It was the sail master (skipper), David Witt! I thanked him, gave him a big hug and said through tears how much I appreciated the experience. What a great bloke. To hear David’s account of the hairiest part of the race and his unplanned swim go here for the video interview (about thirty seconds in) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-29/ragamuffin-charges-into-second-spot-in-sydney-to-hobart/7057556 


 David Witt, top bloke. 

Third place getter Rambler. 

2 Responses to “1799 to 2015 in 24 Hours: Dockside Hobart, Tasmania”

  1. jill blackburn January 2, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

    Hi Sharon. Happy New Year to you and Stewart. Just a note to say how much I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and especially this last entry. Wow ! – what a memorable visit to Tasmania. All the very best for 2016, may the adventures keep coming. Love Jill (We were together on Velvet Lady sailing round Lanzerote) Date: Fri, 1 Jan 2016 00:57:39 +0000 To: jibl@live.co.uk

    • Sharon Tickle January 4, 2016 at 5:44 am #

      Happy new year to you shipmate! How are you sailing Jill? Next stop for us is St Lucia. Sharon

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