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Credit: Rolex/Stefano Gattini
Credit: Rolex/Stefano Gattini

Starting the 2015 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race – Denis Thompson, PRO

Forget the turkey and all the Christmas trimmings because nobody has more on their plate on Boxing Day than Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race PRO, Denis Thompson.

The pressure rests heavily on this one man’s shoulders as the world tunes in at 1300AEST for the start of one of the world’s most challenging and iconic ocean races. The 71st edition on Boxing Day 2015 saw the 108 strong fleet cross over three start lines: big boats, smaller boats and the Clipper fleet.

“I look at the weather about a week beforehand and this year it was predicted to be a south’easter but by race day, it had turned into a true nor ‘easter at 040 degrees. This reinforced my idea of what I wanted to do and when it became 010, it changes the way the boats get off the start line,” Thompson explained.

“This year it was on the nose, which meant that the fleet would be tacking all the way up the harbour and they don’t have much room at the pin end of the line before it gets very busy. I ensure the line is long enough to accommodate the competitors by plotting on the chart. A start line length of approximately 900 metres is needed to accommodate approximately 530 metres of total boat length for all three start lines.

“The angle I use to get it square is 030 degrees to the first turning mark, so the line has the fleet right in the middle of Sydney Harbour.

Thompson works with a team of six people on the start boat, including Race Director Tim Cox and Sam Hunt, and another five on the boat on the pin end of the line.

“We had assistance from Phil Yeomans onboard Middle Harbour Yacht Club vessel for the middle or second start and Ian Kingsford-Smith from the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron for the third start.

“A couple of days before race day we have a briefing to discuss the protocol of communication and the three sets of sounds we will use. We then make a decision on the sound signals that will be used on the VIP boat. We decided to use a cannon for the warning and start signal, followed by a horn for the one-minute signal and we do the countdown over the radio.

“An hour prior to the start I talk through the correct times to the other two start lines teams. I use a GPS to get the exact time so competitors can synchronize their devices 10 seconds beforehand and get the countdown sequence.

“There is the ten minute warning signal, five minute preparatory signal and then the one-minute warning before the start gun. Next we try to manage any individual recalls that are over (On Course Side) but this year they were all very well behaved and no one was over.

“We use a code flag X and a horn for OCS and five minutes after the start, the OCS boats are identified by radio. Being able to identify them and knowing who was over is very important when you have a large fleet of 108 boats.

“I communicate with the pin end boat regarding the placement of the pin and they set it in place 20 minutes before the start. For the first start it was placed into position 40 minutes prior the start, as the bigger boats like to check it in advance.

“The last few minutes before the start we talk to each other about the conditions and check that all of our starting devices are synchronized .We then count down the five minutes to the start. The guys on the bigger boats didn’t push that hard over the line as they had had a lot of starting practice in the lead up to the race with the CYCA Blue Water Point Score Series and Trophy Series, so they were pretty relaxed.

“All three starts were located in the same place as it just makes so much more sense for both the competitors, race management and spectators. It is the biggest and busiest day on the harbour all year and safety is the number one priority.

“After the third start is away cleanly and safely, we pull up anchor and make the mad rush to join the throng that chases the leaders outside the Heads. Once the inclusion zone ends there is not much anyone can really do about the spectators but they are usually pretty respectful and NSW Maritime is there if anyone goes wild.”

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