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The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race by Rob Mundle

The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race has been woven in to the fabric of my being since I was a child growing up in Hobart, where it was a celebrated part of that city’s holiday culture.

Like any child of the era, I can remember the palpable excitement among the crowds wandering the docks to view the fleet. I have a vague recall of being among the spectators whose cars lined the shores, headlights ablaze, to welcome the winners arriving during the hours of darkness.

And - later still – it was the nakedness of Constitution Dock, devoid of its usual mix of pleasure and commercial boats in anticipation of the arrival of the fleet, which stands out the most for me as I walk to my work on the other side of the port.

I am certain that growing up in a maritime city which so passionately embraced ocean yachting led to my own adventures on the high sea tracing, in reverse, the journey from Hobart to the port of Eden, south of Sydney.

I am also certain that it was the knowledge of how brutal this passage can be that put the fear of God in me as I did so. And – as fate would have it – the terror of that notorious body of water, Bass Straight, was unrealised when against all odds we were becalmed there.

I’ve sailed across Storm Bay – a feared piece of water that frequently lives up to its name; and I’ve experienced intimately the need for extreme preparedness, knowing that the sea can be a cruel mistress.

Little wonder that I became immediately immersed in Rob Mundle’’s excellent book which tells the history of this legendary yacht race. The historical detail amassed by Mundle is gob-smacking, and it only adds rigour to the numerous first-hand accounts of derring do. Mundle is an excellent writer and I felt from the outset pulled along like a skiff with a spinnaker in a stiff breeze.

The race’s humble beginnings were amid the austerity of post-war Australia. Then, torn cotton sails were hand-stitched back together at sea; fickle petrol stoves threated to explode, and cans without labels rolled in the sloppy bilges of sprung-plank boats.

There was precious little safety gear, meagre rations comprised mostly potatoes and eggs, and the occasional rabbit or hand-caught fish. With no radio contact – pigeons were initially used to get word to shore. In treacherous waters, these hardy pioneers diced with death on every level.

The sea is a great leveller, and even as some of the latter years of the race – post 1960 - when names like right-wing media baron Rupert Murdoch began to appear in the schedule, my interest waned, but never completely. Although I did begin to tire of some of the reports of rich boy dockside parties which went a bit rogue. It was all a bit too back-patting for me.

And perhaps it is was my own parochialism that prevented me from realising how revered the race is internationally. The Hobart is considered one of the three great ocean sailing races; and I now understand better than ever why. I thought I was just a scaredy cat.

For those who are yet to succumb to the siren song of the sea, I would think that, as an armchair adventure, this book would still stack up. And for a girl from a small river town at the bottom of the world, it’s a wonderful reminder of home.

I’ll be there soon and I expect to once again be among the crowds at the dock. There, we land-lubbers will stand, grinning like fools; warmly welcoming both leaders and stragglers to the safety of harbour after their epic sail through some of the most treacherous waters in the world.

Reviewer: Peta Stavelli

Simon and Schuster, $49.99