Arguably one of Australia’s most challenging ocean races, the Melbourne to Hobart West Coaster starts from Portsea Pier on 27th December each year. The course takes the competitors out of Port Phillip, across Bass Strait, travelling down the rugged West Coast of Tasmania and rounding the southernmost tip of Australia before heading up the Derwent River to the finish in Hobart.
The 480 nautical mile blue-water classic was the brainchild of Stan Gibson from Hobson’s Bay Yacht Club in Melbourne, and Dr Joe Cannon at Derwent Sailing Squadron in Hobart. It was intended as an alternative for Victorian and South Australian sailors who wanted to be in Hobart for the celebrations but did not want the logistical hassle of getting the yacht up to Sydney to compete in the Sydney to Hobart.
Initially, the new race received widespread criticism because of the fearsome reputation of the west coast of Tasmania. Critics described it as Russian Roulette with yachts. However, Stan Gibson had done a study of the weather patterns at the time and convinced critics that it was not as dangerous as initially believed. Despite the early reservations, the race has proven to have an enviable safety record due largely to the careful management and education programs put in place by the ORCV.
The race presents in five parts, each with its own challenges. The Bass Strait crossing to the gap between King Island and the north west corner, the north west corner (Cape Grim) to the South West Cape (the west coast), the South West Cape to Whale Head (the south coast), Whale Head across the bottom of Bruny Island and into Storm Bay and finally the Derwent into Hobart.
The race starts in Bass Strait, a notorious piece of water which often experiences strong South Westerlies at this time of year. Add to that there are some tricky currents, especially towards the gap between King Island and the North West corner. Most navigators concentrate on when they will arrive at the gap and where they should pass through it. This can significantly affect a yacht’s position going into the coast.
The West Coast starts at Cape Grim. Although the wind is often from the West or North West, there are many challenges in this section. This is a wild and beautiful part of the world not seen by many sailors. Below Maquarie Harbour, the last vestiges of civilisation are left behind and the competitors don’t rejoin them until they reach Bruny Island.
The South Coast can often be the highlight of the trip. The South West Cape and the South Coast are some of the most beautiful areas of the world and the sail across gives a view from a perspective rarely granted to the land based bush walker. However there can be a cost as you are sailing on the edge of the Southern Ocean with strong Westerlies driving the yachts hard from behind and raising massive swells. The race goes south of Maatsuyker Island, the furthest South the fleet goes, after that many sailors get the comforting feeling that the worst is over and they are heading north again.
Past Whale Head, the end of the South Coast, the fleet heads east north east around Bruny Island and the Friars. Some yachts with local knowledge have been known to go through the Friars but most tend to go around and avoid tempting fate. Past the Friars and the yachts enter Storm Bay. At this stage you often gain sight of yachts in the East coaster race. Tactics vary according to the wind. Most yachts will try and keep clear of the high headlands along Bruny Island which can often throw wind shadows.
The race can be won or lost on the fickle section up the Derwent River. Ideally no one wants to be caught in the river at nightfall. Local knowledge can be so valuable here as the Derwent offers the experience of complex wind patterns and mechanisms.
The warmest of welcomes awaits the finishers at the Elizabeth Street Pier. It is a point of honour in this race that no yacht finishes unheralded and many a yachty has been roused from the local watering holes or comfy berth to meet late night or early morning finishers. Somehow a cold slab is always produced no matter what the time and the previous finishers raise three cheers in honour of the crew.
You will be able to follow all the action of this exciting race with the Fleet Tracker. Each participating vessel will have one of our trackers on board which will report the GPS position, speed and direction along with several other items of information to the online map. These positions will be updated every thirty minutes so their supporters, family, friends and international armchair admirals can experience the race from the comfort of their own home.
Want to know more about this race? Then head over to the the ORCV website.