Photo: Stefano Gattini / Studio Borlenghi / ROLEX

Rambler 88 pipped at the post

As Syd Fischer's Ragamuffin takes second place on the water in the Rolex Sydney Hobart

Tuesday December 29th 2015, Author: Jim Gale and Di Pearson, Location: none selected

A match race up the River Derwent from the Tasman Light and a heart-stopping decision not to follow Rambler 88 when she gybed in the final stages of the race, resulted in second over line for 88 year-old Syd Fischer and his Ragamuffin 100.
Those events were put into perspective when sailing master/skipper David Witt re-told the real story of their trials on the first night and second days at sea and how especially on the first night in the Rolex Sydney Hobart, things went horribly wrong for Team Ragamuffin.
“It was 10 to 10.30 at night when the southerly hit. It was intense and relentless. We were trying to get the main down heading north when the boat literally capsized on top of us. Shave (Justin Shave) was on the bow and under water, the main, half down, knocked me off the back of the boat. I was hanging on to the back end and my sea boots were dragged off me.
“All I was thinking was, ‘can someone press the canting button (to centralise the keel), 'cos I can’t reach it from where I am’.
“We were under water for 15 minutes – the ballast was on the wrong side of the boat and so was the keel. Frightening doesn’t describe it,” Witt recalled.
Then there was a game of dodgem cars with two 25-foot whales, on a collision course with the boat.
“We had to swerve and dodge them – that was nearly catastrophic,” said crew member Andrew ‘Crowebar’ Crowe.
Losing all their electronics did not help. A broken port daggerboard was the dizzy limit, slowing the boat right down right when they had good contact with the lead boats.
“But we dusted ourselves off and kept going,” Witt said.
And let’s not forget a long stretch where sailing briskly at 25 knots became a distant dream when they were almost becalmed most of yesterday afternoon.
Then came the match race up the Derwent. At the last, Witt had to decide whether to follow Rambler 88, when legendary tactician Brad Butterworth took the American boat towards shore looking for pressure.
“Did I feel the pressure of having to make that call – of course I did. I had Syd and the rest of the crew depending on a right decision. Lucky it was,” Witt said, adding they had overtaken George David’s Rambler 88 once up the Derwent and then just before the finish.
“That’s the toughest one we’ve had for a few years – but it was worth it in the end. It was good to beat Rambler over the line. The crew did a great job – every one of them did the job they had to do.”
The last words go to Ragamuffin’s owner, Syd Fischer, the oldest person to ever contest the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s 628 mile race: “I don’t have to do much anymore – I sit back and let the guys do it. Witty does a good job of helming and skippering the boat. It’s a good crew – all of them,” he said.
On their winning move, Fischer said: “We just had to try different tactics. We just had to do something different, and do it better – and we did.
“It was good to beat them – a good feeling. And I crossed another one off – my 47th,” he said with his trademark grin.

Rambler 88

American George David brought his 88ft Rambler from the other side of the world to win the Rolex Sydney Hobart - not line honours - he wanted to win outright and made it clear in Sydney when he spoke to the press at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia before the race, and he made it just as plain when he stepped off Rambler in Hobart.
“This is a handicap race,” George David said. “There are a hundred boats out there and every boat is trying to win handicap. That’s where the competition is. Line honours is a nice thing to have. We could put some things on the boat to make her go faster, but they would hurt our rating.”
For a time yesterday, after the damage to Comanche, it looked like Rambler 88 might just pull off the double. She had raced ahead of the stricken super maxi, and had created a huge gap between herself and third-placed Ragamuffin 100. Line honours beckoned. And on the overall leaderboard she had been steadily climbing the ladder. She had reached second place when it all fell apart.
Rambler 88 was about to experience that special agony that the fickle winds off Tasmania’s coast have reserved for so many race leaders over the years.
“We sailed a great race,” David said. “We got through all the bad stuff with effectively no damage. We did damage to both daggerboards when we hit a couple of fish, but the boat held together and everything was great until the blower shut down.”
Rambler had run out of wind.                
“Yesterday was bizarre,” David continued. “We had no air. The big high swallowed up the guys behind us then it got us too. And once you’re in it you can’t get out.”
Comanche had chosen to give Tasmania a wider birth, arcing much further out to sea. She didn’t have a lot of wind out there, but she had wind, and took back the lead while Rambler drifted.
“To add insult to injury, all the boats behind us came down with a northerly and sailed right into us,” David said. “At one point we were 60 miles ahead of Ragamuffin 100.”
The rest is history.
Comanche spluttered and surged her way up the Derwent in dying light, squeezing every drop she could from the fading breeze. Rambler and Ragamuffin 100 reached Tasman Island after Storm Bay and the Derwent River had shut down. On board Rambler a frustrating afternoon would stretch into a long, frustrating night, the two boats parked within metres of each other.
As the night wore on David watched his chances of an outright triumph evaporate.
“I knew we had lost after we had been in the hole for four or five hours,” David said.
“Ten miles further ahead and we probably would have staggered into Hobart last night,” added Rambler’s tactician Brad Butterworth, “but we just dropped out of the breeze. So that was really the race for us.”
“But that’s why you come sailing,” David chipped in. “You have good days and bad days where things just go against you.
“There is an element of luck in everything you do. The wind does what the wind does.”
In the end Rambler and Ragamuffin 100 staged an extraordinary, snail-paced duel up an almost breathless Derwent River this morning, with the Australian super maxi falling across the line just ahead of the American maxi.
It was gripping, but also painful to watch.
Yet after all this, George David didn’t miss a beat when asked if he would bring Rambler 88 back for another shot: “Yes. Why not. Sounds good to me.”

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