Cruising Helmsman May 1989 by Trish Murphy (one of the crew)
It was the first time ever that a maxi yacht had been raced by women. The boat was the legendary Windward Passage. The race was from Sydney to Newcastle, at night. The editor was aboard as crew.
I was wandering down the corridor towards the front door of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia when somebody coming the other way stopped me.
"Are you one of those girls?" he said. "There's a message for one of those girls."
He looked exasperated. "Which boat are you off?" he said.
"Windward Passage," I replied. As I did so, I suddenly wondered how many people, all over the world, down the long time-corridor of 20 years, had answered the same question with those same words.
Windward Passage. The body of water for which she is named lies in the Caribbean, between Cuba and Haiti, north-east of Jamaica. Passage herself has sailed all the waters of the world in her 20 year life-time, competing in the world's more exotic races, winning for herself a reputation that extends far beyond the sum of her parts as simply a boat.
When Rod Muir bought Passage, she was at the scruffy end of a long career. She was sent to New Zealand, where for 18 months she was substantially re-fitted. The result: a fabulously finished cruising boat with immaculate spruce veneer on her hull, white leather sofas, three private cabins, a vast galley. Her deck had been altered, too, and in fact areas of it proved quite difficult to work, with foot chocks removed and nowhere to hang on to.
That afternoon wandering through the CYC, I had just bid farewell to the boat. We had brought Passage home from her last race. And although for her, it was a final event, for us, the crew who sailed her, it was a first - in more ways than one. It was the first time ever that a maxi-yacht has been raced by an all-women crew. For many of us, as well, it was the first time we had ever sailed a maxi at all.
It was a chance not to be missed, and it came with a phone call from Cathy Hawkins, who had recently completed the Around Australia Race on the trimaran Verbatim. While sailing off Hawaii, she explained, she and Kathy Muir had hatched the idea together. Was I interested?
The rationale behind the idea extended further than just a boat race. Although Passage had cruised a considerable distance since her refit, she hadn't been raced. Nor, in her new form, was she intended to be raced. However, racing a boat is by far the best (and the most quick) way to discover her weak points and stress areas. Kathy Muir explained later that she felt that 23 women on board would be more sympathetic than 23 men. I hope we were!
On asking who else was to be aboard, I discovered I was to be in experience company. Besides Cathy Hawkins, Kathy Muir (who crews aboard her husband's new boat, Windward Passage II), there were to be Olympians Niki Green and Karen Davis, skiff sailors Vanessa Dudley and Adrienne Callaghan, rigger Petrea Heathwood from Queensland - it was a long list.
Our coach was to be Olympic and Admirals Cup coach Mike Fletcher.
Our first day on the boat was a little bewildering. There were names to match to faces, positions to be allocated, techniques to be learned. Beneath our feet, Passage waited patiently. This was a dry run - we didn't take her out of the pen. She seemed awfully large - all her winches, blocks, sheets looked (to me at least) absolutely huge. To clip the main halyard on to the headboard, some-one had to scramble 20 feet up the mast. Cathy suggested I familiarise myself with the coffee grinders.
I fiddled with them, but didn't pay too much attention. I was sure that a group of super-fit aerobics types would be shipped in for this job. Being an office lizard with an aversion to exercise, I could barely make it to the cigarette machine without flagging. But towards the end of that first meeting, I hadn't been given a position. On accosting Cathy, she said that Fletch would allocate a position. For a minute she looked half apologetic, half hopeful: "You are very strong," she suggested.
On deck, I took another look at the crew and came to terms with the fact that at mix foot, I was definitely the largest member of the company. That could only really mean one thing. With a degree of dread, I began to pay better attention to those grinders.
In John Bertrand's book about the Americas Cup, Born To Win, there is quite a lot about grinding. In particular, I remembered the tacking duel of the last race in 1983, where after 48 or so tacks, the grinders went into the "red zone" -where physically, they were in danger of having heart attacks and things. They called each tack for a member of the crew to give themselves the strength to get through it. I wondered if this was a good time in my life to give up keel boats and take to boardsailing or something. If it were any other boat but Windward Passageâ¦.
The next time on the boat, we took her out. Putting up the main was a task unto itself, and I began to think my doubts about this grinding business were justified. I thought my arms were going to fall off. "Not much further," some-one sang, "only 20 feet to go!"
Only 20 feet? Has somebody got a coffin waiting in the wings? Then we put up the jib - the number three. I trotted to the grinders back aft to do trim. To my surprise, the tacks didn't seem that bad.
Mike Fletcher had the task of turning 23 individuals into a working team. He moved about the boat quietly talking to different people in different positions. Back aft, he advised us of how best to master the grinding. Basically, you go like the clappers to get as much line in as possible before the jib loads up.
"It's not that bad," I said cheerfully.
"This is only the number three," somebody replied.
The next time out, we put up the number one. It's a big, big sail - Passage has a masthead rig. On the third tack with that sail, I was not so much worried I would die as worried that I wouldn't. Then I seemed to break into a second wind, and began to enjoy the sailing.
We began training three and sometimes four times a week. It was often hard going - most of us had full-time jobs, and a bad day at the office would interfere with our concentration on the boat. Eventually the office was put on hold, and anything that needed to be done had to wait till "after the race" .
On sailing days I smoked less and ate a lot of pasta. Not everybody could make it to every session - some days were five or six people short. That meant hard work all round. Chris Evans and myself worked the for'ard grinders, and we'd be on the trot most of the time. We would put up the main and headsail; run aft to help trim, run for'ard to grind up a new headsail, run even further for'ard to help get the old one down and lash the beast to the deck, run aft to trim. Kite sets were even more frenetic. I would find myself willing the wind to blow hard on sailing days, so that we could set the number three rather than the number one.
Jody Poe and Susie Bell on the main-sheet grinders tended to disagree - they preferred light air for their job.
Some days were invigorating, others demoralising. Two weeks into training, Kathy Muir said that Rod would be aboard for that week's twilight race. That was a little bit of pressure for us, as we wanted to sail the boat well. It was not a good day, however. A decision to change headsails for a downwind leg, and a reluctance to change back for the beat, led to disaster.
We were grinding through the tack when we heard an ominous cracking noise, and the trimmer yelled to us to stop. Now, with the number one, if it became fouled as it crossed the centre of the boat, it meant a lot of grinding for us to bring it in. So I was grumbling as I turned my head to see what the problem was. What I saw were little flags of kevlar flogging furiously in the wind. I don't remember running up the boat, but I do remember pulling the leechline down, incredulous. How did it happen?
We put up the number three and kept going. Fletch said the sail could probably be repaired. A combination of things had caused the blow-out. The tack had been faster than usual. There was too much wind for the sail. It had caught on the spreader as it went through.
I warned the office in advance that on the day of the race, I would be Out. It was a night race, starting at 5pm, so that morning I did my best to sleep late. I was too excited, however, and set off to find some white shorts and put myself through the pre-grind ritual of eating as much as possible.
We set up the boat, stopped the spinnakers and sailed out at 3.30 to have a look beyond the Beads and warm up.
Cathy Hawkins talked about the weather. Twelve to 14 knots from the east, and a relatively flat sea. We'd sail all the way up on a reach, which was Passage's best point of sail. We couldn't have asked for better. The breeze would probably fade around 9pm, and the two hours between 9pm and 1 1pm would be critical for us. We would head out a little way around then, to catch the last of the breeze. The southerly set had in fact shifted a little way offshore, and should not be a problem.
The start was a very calm affair. We picked the leeward end of the line, choosing to avoid the press of boats jostling to windward of Shark Island. Passage II crossed our bow, tacked and sped away in front of us. I was mortified, through - out this process, to discover that as we had, full crew, the aft grinders were well staffed, and all I had to do was sit on the rail.
Once we'd turned left at the Heads, we put up the staysail and there was some adjusting of the jib. Move the foot outboard, no, a bit further, is that working? There was much leading and re-leading of sheets. During this time Rager - the opposition - passed us. They waved us goodbye. Eventually we took the staysail back down again, put the jib back to where it was in the first place, and settled down.
The breeze was soft - nine knots. Rager loved it, but we couldn't really get Passage up and running in less than 10 knots. A little later in the evening, the breeze strengthened, and we steadily closed on Rager's stern. About then, things on our boat became rather quiet. We held our breath, the breeze remained steady, and we finally gained the lead over the other boat. We kept it for the rest of the race.
Sailing on only one tack for the entire distance left little in the way of work for many of us. We lounged around, ate dinner, kept a lookout for Rager's nav lights. A short watch system was introduced, and some went below for a nap. I stayed on deck.
At one point, lounging aft with my shoulders wedged between the backstay and the radar post, I drowsed off. I thought that this was what it must feel like to sleep in the fork of a tree. Why would one sleep up a tree? Because one was in Africa, of course, and there would be lions on the prowl. But lions can climb trees. A lion was pawing at the trunk of my tree, and - bloody hell! Someone had stumbled over me, waking me up. I took a minute to figure out that I was not up a tree in Africa, but on a large boat in the Tasman. Then the trimmer called us to grind in a bit of sheet.
Turning towards Newcastle, there was debate as to whether or not we should set the kite on the run over the finish line. There was some consideration of sea room, and we thought we might pole out the jib. Niki Green, who had been below during the debate, came up on deck and initiated a kite set anyway. A good thing too. Rager's sails were ghosting along the other side of the breakwater. She had cut the corner and halved our lead over her. Had we not set, she might well have beaten us over the line.
But we did set. Then there was talk of a gybe. Preparations for a gybe began, but a voice (don't know who it was) yelled from the middle of the boat: "Why gybe if we don't have to?"
We didn't gybe, and I heard a gun as we crossed the line. In the rush of drop-ping sails and coiling sheets, somebody mentioned that we had quite a good handicap for age allowance.
I don't know if, when we began the whole operation of sailing Passage, we had thought much about winning. The plan was to get there with no dramas. We had been warned by Rod Muir that if we beat his new boat, we should not go to Newcastle, certainly not tie up at the dock. "Just keep going," he warned, with a big grin on his face. Fortunately, the new boat arrived a good hour ahead of us, winning its own division. We had taken line honours in our division. We found out the following day that we had won it on handicap as well.
The Windward Passage Tavern on the Newcastle waterfront is an airy oasis amid the last traces of an earlier, more grimy era. Centrepiece of the bar is the plug for Windward Passage II, all dressed up to look like the boat itself, and wearing mast and boom, and orca on the stern. That night, when we finished the race (I was told), Fletch, who had sailed up on Passage II, had been keeping watch from one of the tavern terraces. When he saw us coming down under kite, he apparently yelled: "It's my girls!" and bolted for the dockside. He spent the remainder of the weekend wearing a Passage T-shirt and joked more than once that he was proud to be "an honorary girl". We loved him for it.
In the bar that night, things were heady. Bets had been won and lost. The various Passage II boys who had been betting on how far we would/wouldn't make it up the coast (two miles/four miles/six miles) had lost out. Somebody grabbed me near the entrance and yelled at me: "Fantastic! Amazing! You actually made it!"
"Well the conditions weren't very difficult," I said.
"Yes, but you actually got here! Incredible!"
"Well what did you expect? That we'd sink the thing?"
The Trip Back
In Newcastle, we had a day to consider things before sailing Passage home again on Sunday. Naturally, we spent a fair bit of time celebrating. One or two crew said that although we had had a great sail, we had had little cause to use our new maxi skills. The sail home gave us that opportunity.
On Sunday morning, there was word of a front moving up from the south. It was at Montague Island, travelling at 20 knots and with 25 to 30 knots behind it. , Many crew had returned to Sydney and elsewhere by train, and others had brought friends aboard. Fletch, who had been standing on Passage II with his yellow bag, jumped off their ship and on to ours. We were ready to leave, he explained to them, while they were not. "Anyway," he said, "it's better company on this boat."
We motor sailed in light air for several hours. It was sunny and hot, and we lazed about the deck, trying to ignore the whap-whap of the slatting main (who said fully-battened mains don't flog?). Eventually, however, a dark band of cloud began marching towards us. We put up the number four, reefed the main, cleared away the spinnaker sheets and made sure Passage was snug. The breeze filled in steadily from the south, until it was puffing 20 to 25 knots. It was then that we really had a taste of maxi sailing.
Kathy Muir had once warned us that Passage was a wet boat. Wet was probably a euphemism. Sitting up along the windward gunwale, we were doused time and time again with sheets of water. People working up around the bow and mast began to look thoroughly bedraggled.
When the decision was made to put up the staysail and drop the number four, I went up for'ard to help. Up on the bow, wedged between the staysail and the safety lines and trying to lash the number four to the deck, there was so much water and salt in my eyes that I couldn't see anything at all, and was working blind. Just as soon as I'd blink it away and grab a quick look at what was going on, whoosh, we'd be drenched again. I thought it was fun, but then I knew that within a matter of hours we'd be home and dry. Sailing the Whitbread, for example, would be a completely different kettle of fish.
We sailed past Barrenjoey, which suddenly looked unfamiliar and strange in the grey afternoon. I've passed it often before, and yet this time it didn't look like Barrenjoey at all. A long tack out and another back in, and we were bang in line with North Head.
Heading out on the race, the water around North Head had been dark, sickly brown and foul-smelling because of the effluent pumped out there. With so much water coming over the bow now, I hoped the wind had blown the worst of it away.
In the harbour we started the motor and dropped the sails, but then discovered that the motor wouldn't engage. Carson, the boat's caretaker, reported that all the bolts in. the coupling had dropped out. We sailed up and down under staysail while he fixed it.
And finally, I was standing in the draughty corridor of the CYC. "Are you one of those girls?" the man was asking me.
"Yes, yes I am. Problem?"
"Oh no," he said, "just a message. It says, good on you."
I thanked him, and went home