Double-Handing the Sydney-Hobart

Peter Dowdney has competed in the famed Sydney-Hobart race a staggering 16 times, most recently competing in the first ever DoubleHanded division of the race on the 41′ Elliot 1250 Joker on Tourer. However, the Sydney-Hobart was just a warmup for Dowdney and co-skipper Grant Chipperfield, as they train for the longest longitudinal race in the world: the 5,500nm race from Melbourne to Osaka.

With 16 Sydney-Hobart races under your belt, you’re certainly no stranger to the race and the challenges that come along with it.

I have no idea why but I simply love the S2H race! It has been such a big part of my life for so many years that my family no longer ask me whether I am doing the race; they usually just ask me which boat I am sailing on this year? I guess if I had to choose the three key elements of the race that keep me coming back it would be:

  1. The fact that no two races are ever the same and they all have their own set of unique tactical and physical challenges.
  2. The challenge of crossing Bass Strait never gets old. At its best it can be a stunningly beautiful stretch of water. At its worst, it can be simply terrifying.
  3. The start is always chaotic and exciting, and the sense of achievement and unbelievable welcome that we receive at the finish is something that every sailor needs to experience at least once in their lifetime.

What was different this time around as a doublehanded vessel? Are there different steps you took as far as training and preparation (both personal prep and boat prep)? 

Two-handed sailing requires an enormous amount of preparation and thought about your processes. An error in a sail change on a fully crewed boat can be messy and slow, but on a two-handed boat it can be disastrous because you don’t have any extra support or muscle. Every manoeuvre or sail change has to be practiced, planned, and executed in the most methodical manner. 

You also have to make decisions earlier than you would normally be used to doing in a fully-crewed environment, because things simply take longer when there are only two of you. We spent months going through our sail inventory, refining our set-ups, practicing our hoists and drops, and recording our timing for each manoeuvre. Knowing how long things take is a critical element in your tactical decision making. Tempering your competitive urges and taking a slightly more conservative approach to your sailing is critical, as mistakes will cost you way more time than sailing with the wrong sail mix for another 15-20 minutes. As a really competitive person, this is not something that comes naturally!

Lastly, you have to choose a sailing partner that you trust with your life! Going below to grab sleep when you can is critical, and this is almost impossible to achieve if you have any concerns about the abilities of the person you have handed over to.

Anything that you felt went particularly well?

This year’s race was a race of two distinctly different halves. The first half was a typical Bass Strait Southerly belting and it lasted for the first 36 hours of the race. The first night was pretty brutal and this took a heavy toll on the fleet with 35-40 boats retiring within the first 24 hours. We knew that the forecast was for the weather to abate and improve significantly at some point, so we just had to hang on and get through the tough stuff. By nightfall on second day, we managed to repair a few things that had failed in the bumpy stuff and get the boat back up to full sailing mode.

This is where I felt that our preparation paid dividends because while we did have a couple of minor gear problems, all were repairable and none slowed us down for any length of time. I firmly believe that while a lot of the boats retired for unforeseeable reasons, many did so as a result of problems that could have been easily prevented by having a better understanding of their boat, and a more thorough preparation.

The second half of the race was actually very pleasant, but it became a tactical nightmare as the breeze slowly evaporated. We managed to weave our way through the light patches reasonably effectively until we hit Storm Bay, and then got snagged in a complete glass out for over 15 hours with only 30 miles to go. 

How did the race go for Joker on Tourer?

We had a great race, capped off with a really exciting finish where we were pipped across the line by 13 seconds to the boat that was third across the line in the 2-handed division. I have finished a lot of S2H races, and they are always fun, but being part of the first ever two-handed S2H race made this one extra special! I have never experienced such joy and excitement about finishing a 5-day S2H race. The sense that we were part of a strong new movement in sailing, and the unbelievable camaraderie amongst the two-handed participants will be something that I will never forget.

If the success and interest in this year’s two-handed division was anything to go by, I am confident that it will only grow and become a bigger part of the Sydney to Hobart race’s evolution. Short-handed sailing is hugely popular all over the world and it is rapidly gaining momentum here in Australia, so I hope that in future years the two-handers will be allowed to compete for the overall prize, and not be treated as a novelty race within the bigger event.

Completing the Sydney-Hobart race is an accomplishment in its own right, but at 5,500 nautical miles the Osaka Cup will be a different animal. In fact, it covers nearly nine times the distance of the famed Sydney-Hobart race. What is your mindset leading up to such a significant event and what other training/preparation do you have planned after Sydney-Hobart?

The short answer is that this will be completely new territory for both Grant and I, so we are not really sure what to expect. 30+ days at sea is a daunting proposition but we are both really excited about taking on the challenge.

Our training program between now and the Melbourne to Osaka race start will include as many longer two-handed races as we can fit into our busy schedules. We are already signed up to do the 50TH Anniversary Melbourne to Hobart race this Christmas, and then in March 2023 we are planning to compete in the 1500nm long Melbourne to Noumea race. We see this as being a critical step to our M2O preparations because it will be a race of 10-12 days’ duration and covers much of the same ocean as the first section of the M2O race. It will give us a great chance to test the boat, get into our sailing routines, and proof-test our communications and navigation systems.

Compared to racing a fully crewed boat, what are your favorite and least favorite aspects of double-handed sailing?

I love the fact that you are never idle; you are generally sailing the boat single-handed for most of the time. On fully-crewed boats you usually have one or two main roles to perform, but on a two-handed boat, you have to be capable of doing everything. Being a good sailor is not even close to being a good short-handed sailor, so it has forced me to brush up significantly on my navigation and comms skills, as well as thinking about a heap of different things that I would not normally get involved with in the fully-crewed environment.

Keeping the boat dry is an essential task on any boat, but it is by far my least favourite job to perform. It usually takes place when the boat is being belted around, and you have your head stuck down in the bilge trying to sponge water out of difficult to reach places. It’s a great way to make yourself seasick, even if you don’t usually succumb to the ailment.

My only other problem with two-handed sailing is that when you finish the race and end up in the bar to celebrate your success, your shout for the next round of beers seems to come around very quickly!

It certainly feels like there is some momentum towards shorthanded and double handed sailing, with the popularity of Vendee Globe and Mini Transat races as well as the near Olympic bid of a double-handed offshore class. Do you think shorthanded sailing is a category that will continue to grow in popularity?

I think that short-handed sailing will only become more and more popular as boats are being designed and built with short-handed sailing in mind. Finding and keeping a crew of 6-8 people every weekend can be very tough, and it also becomes expensive when you consider all the new safety requirements that have come into the sport of ocean racing in the past two decades. These are all for good reason, but the costs do escalate when you multiply them by 10 people.

It is also extremely rewarding to successfully complete a race with only one other person onboard. Both people have had to contribute substantially to the result, and there is no such thing as a passenger or rail meat on a two-handed boat. I definitely see a place for both fully-crewed and short-handed sailing because both offer their own benefits and challenges to the sailors that compete in them. We are not quite there yet, but we are rapidly approaching a time where short-handed sailing will become just a normal part of any major offshore event.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

The key to successfully being able to sail a boat short-handed is having the best possible auto-helm system and great sail handling systems. These are the two areas where you need to focus most of your time, effort, and I hate to say it, but also your expenditure because getting these areas right will deliver you the greatest bang for your bucks in terms of performance, regardless of what sort of boat you are sailing.