Southampton - Punta del Este - Fremantle - Auckland - Punta del Este - Fort Lauderdale - Southampton
Division A winner: Steinlager 2
Division C winner: Equity & Law II
Division D winner: Esprit de Liberte
Cruising division: Creighton’s Naturally
A whole host of thorny problems, ranging from a rating rule that favoured small boats in deciding the overall winner, to the continued use of Cape Town as a stopover port, were addressed at the end of the 1985-86 Race, resulting in a series of changes for 1989 which inevitably proved controversial.
For a while, the organisers had been pressured by the British Government to abandon their ties with Cape Town following the Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 which, in support of the anti-apartheid movement, discouraged any sporting links with South Africa. Cape Town was duly removed from the race track and instead the 23 strong fleet headed to Punte del Este in Uruguay, which had proved a popular stopover in 1985.
Punta featured twice on the new route, as the start and finish of the Southern Ocean legs, and a further stopover in Fort Lauderdale in America was also added, extending the race by 5,000 nm to 32,000 nm.
The scrapping of the handicap system and introduction of a prize structure based on classes led to a loss of interest among the small boat sector, but a proliferation of maxis. In all there were 17 big boats on the start line, six of them brand new. The rest were a hotch potch of old and new, including 1985 winner, renamed Esprit de Liberte skippered by Eric Tabarly’s brother Patrick, plus a novelty entry that was to put the Whitbread Race on prime time television and on the front page of newspapers all around the world.
Tracy Edwards, the cook on Atlantic Privateer in 1985, had paid £115,000 for Pierre Fehlmann’s old 18 metre Disque d’Or III and put together an all-women crew to compete in the race, something that had never been done before.
There was a good deal of scepticism over her bid and she encountered many problems in landing a sponsorship deal. But an old connection with the King of Jordan provided her with a cash bonanza in the form of a last minute deal worth £800,000 from Royal Jordanian Airlines, guaranteeing enough money to complete the race. From the outset, the project was named Maiden Great Britain and Edwards showed great guile and nerve to raise the campaign’s profile including inviting the Duchess of York, who was then the wife of HRH Prince Andrew, to christen the boat. Despite the publicity, many doubted that Edwards’ crew would get round, let alone post any decent results, but she was to prove them wrong. Seriously wrong.
Blake was back for the fifth time, with a new ketch, named Steinlager 2 after one of his sponsor’s brews. His watchleader from the previous race, Grant Dalton, had also raised a campaign, securing funds from washing-machine makers Fisher & Paykel for a brand new maxi and hot-shot crew. This development added a compelling new dimension to the race since both Blake and Dalton were strongly tipped as likely winners. Stories of their bitter rivalry were legion though few had any foundation since, off the water, the pair were good friends, but no one else in the maxi fleet posed such a massive challenge to the title as did New Zealand’s golden boys.
British Olympic medallist Lawrie Smith, a crewmember on Drum in 1985, was the lucky beneficiary of a bumper budget from cigarette company Rothmans for a maxi campaign, but both the build and Smith’s appointment were completed late which gave precious little time for trials. Even before the race started, everyone knew that Rothmans was slower than her Kiwi counterparts.
Pierre Fehlmann also tapped into the tobacco market, his well-funded Merit maxi quickly gaining favour as one the favourites, even though it only had one mast, which went against the designer-driven vogue for two in this race.
Another new British maxi, built in Lymington, was British Defender, campaigned by a combined team of Royal Navy, Army and Airforce personnel, and sponsored by financial services company Satquote.
Southampton to Punta del Este
Southampton replaced Portsmouth as the start and finish port and around 4,000 boats carrying an estimated 50,000 people gathered in the Solent for the send off, a show that Steinlager 2 stole when she whizzed out ahead of everyone else to grab a 16-mile lead by nightfall.
Her speeds were awesome and, assisted by helpful winds, Blake’s crew soon set a new record when they covered 343 miles in 24 hours. Fisher & Paykel had also been hurtling along, but six days before the finish they dropped off the pace without explanation. They arrived in Punta del Este without their mizzen - Dalton had refused to divulge this vital information to anyone.
Not surprisingly, Steinlager won the leg in Division A, beating Merit by 12 hours and Fisher & Paykel by 30. The leg duration, anticipated to be 30 days, turned out to be a whole week less. Rothmans arrived fourth with a cracked deck and Smith was distinctly riled by the Kiwis’ success, using the press to raise some concerns.
“Smith was quoted in the British press calling us cheats on the basis that no-one has ever seen Blake’s boat out of the water,” wrote Steinlager 2’s Glen Sowry and Mike Quilter in their book, Big Red. “We were not sure what he expected to find on our keel. In retrospect, Smith was probably just trying to unsettle us but in reality all he achieved by this accusation was to make us even more determined to beat him.”
The Corinthian spirit of the old days had disappeared along with cocktails at dusk. The prevailing culture was now one of professionalism, pressure and cut-throat competition.
The first casualty of that intense pressure was Alexei Grischenko, co-skipper of Russian entry Fazisi. He had not enjoyed the first leg and informed the management he would head for home before returning in Fremantle. A few days into the stopover, however, he went missing. His crew became worried when he did not return after 24 hours and the American co-skipper Skip Novak alerted race officials, who tipped off the local police chief. He had committed suicide.
It was a ghastly time for everyone, complicated by a lack of understanding as to what had led to such a tragic end. “We didn’t know why he had committed suicide, but we certainly could assume that the pressures brought to bear by the project, by the rushed and often confused construction in Georgia, the panic in England where he spoke not one word of the language, his lengthy absence from his young family, all must have contributed to his illness. In his planned return to Kiev, possibly he saw himself as a failure,” wrote Novak in his book Fazisi, the Joint Venture.
Punta del Este to Fremantle
The crews were rocked by another tragedy in Punta when Janne Gustavsson, a crewmember on The Card, had a motorbike accident and died.
The atmosphere was not helped by some other antics. Smith was once again the bad guy after he poached Gordon Maguire and Henri Hiddes from NCB Ireland to bolster his Rothmans crew; the project manager of L’Esprit de Liberte did a runner with £100,000 and the crew's passports; and Frank Esson, the skipper of British Satquote Defender, was sacked. It was all happening, but against the odds and to the delight of everyone, Fazisi joined the fleet for the start of the second leg.
Again all eyes were on the four big maxis at the front as they made their selections over the best route to Western Australia. Merit, Rothmans and Fisher & Paykel took a more southerly route into iceberg territory and picked up some wind, leaving Blake’s boat trailing by 100 miles.
On Creighton’s Naturally, a violent broach thrust Bart van den Dwey and Tony Phillips, a cousin of Princess Anne’s husband Capt Mark Phillips, overboard. It was around 0300, the seas were big, and although both men were wearing life-jackets and equipped with flares and personal radio beacons, the recovery took more than 45 minutes.
Skipper John Chittenden recalled: “The first man, Bart van den Dwey, was recovered and successfully resuscitated. Tony Phillips was recovered and resuscitation continued for three hours without success. Bart’s lifejacket was inflated. Tony Phillips’ was not. He hit a stanchion as he went overboard and it is thought unlikely that he was conscious once in the water.” Tony Phillips was buried at sea.
In all, seven sailors disappeared over the side in the second leg. All but Phillips survived - a sign of the increased professionalism among the crews who were once more tested to the full by the battering they received in the Southern Ocean. Spinnaker poles and booms, arms and legs, breakages were rife and it was only after the Kerguelen Islands that things began to quieten down, though not before Fortuna Extra Lights had created a new 24-hour record of 405 miles. They came to a crashing halt when crewmember Rafael Tibua broke his ankle in two places after being hurled against the mast. It was left to the four big guns Fisher & Paykel, Steinlager 2, Merit and Rothmans to engage in a fierce battle for the second leg into Fremantle.
Blake crossed first, around 90 minutes in front. Then Rothmans and Merit staged a breathtaking match-race for second place, Rothmans taking the spoils by 28 seconds after 27 days of racing. A week later, Edwards’ Maiden crossed the line first in Division D, achieving the best result for a British boat in the Whitbread for 12 years.
On reflection, this was considered the toughest leg in any of the five races to date.
Fremantle to Auckland
After a few unseasonably hot days in Australia, the crews ploughed straight back into turbulent waters. Gale conditions and heavy seas provided them with an uncomfortable Christmas at sea, though a few crews persisted with stockings and champagne. Not so the crew on Steinlager 2, who were so keen to become the first Kiwi boat into Auckland that all seasonal niceties, such as presents and fresh food, had been ditched to save weight.
Beyond the Tasman Sea, the winds calmed down though the competition between the maxis remained as furious as ever. The leaderboard offered up a new scenario with every position report. With 245 miles to the finish, nine miles separated the first three boats. Steinlager 2 led Fisher & Paykel by four miles, with Rothmans third and Merit just 11 miles behind. Further back, Charles Jourdan came a cropper after a collision with a whale, the crash leaving a three-metre hole in the hull. Fortunately it was above the waterline so the French crew got to work on patching it up and carried on. By chance Union Bank of Finland was also hit by a whale.
Grant Dalton turned off his navigation lights after he rounded the North Cape and was given a dressing down over the radio by Blake, brandishing his rule book. Meanwhile Blake ordered all 15 crew on deck then tuned into the local radio channel to get some idea of the conditions around Auckland. This initiative was to prove inspirational since it prompted a change of sail that gave her a smooth passage through a ferocious 40-knot squall. Dalton was still flying his kite and lost time as he reconfigured, allowing his rivals to stretch their lead to a mile. It was all they needed, Steinlager 2 enjoying the rapturous scenes as they crossed the line less than six minutes ahead of Fisher & Paykel to win their third straight leg in Division A.
It was the first time a Kiwi boat had won the leg into Auckland and the celebrations were huge. There were similar scenes when Maiden crossed the line three days later to win her second leg in Division D. Around 14,000 people gathered on the dockside, even though it was 0100. “I didn’t think we could win the third leg,” she wrote in her autobiography, Living Every Second. “Now I started to dream about winning the entire race. We had extended our lead in Division D to almost 18 hours. Steinlager 2, which headed the maxis, had nowhere near this sort of lead.”
Auckland to Punta del Este
Concerns over the congestion in Auckland were realised when The Card’s mizzen became entangled with the mast of one of the thousands of spectator boats and snapped. Skipper Roger Nilson decided to dump it over the side and sail on as a sloop and, amazingly, the plan worked for a while. The new rigging responded so well in the light airs off Cape Colville that she careered into the lead.
Alas, it was not for long. The Kiwi maxis hit their stride before the sunhats had been replaced by balaclavas and quickly took the lead as the Southern Ocean beckoned. Rucanor Sport, Bruno Dubois’ Belgian boat, had to give up and return to Auckland after she collided with a whale and damaged her rudder, while below deck on Maiden started to resemble a casualty department. First Mikaela von Kuskull was knocked unconscious by Maiden’s boom then Michelle Paret was hurled into the wheel by a massive wave. Claire Russell, the doctor, strapped Paret into a bunk and kept her there for four days.
As Steinlager 2 and Fisher & Paykel rounded Cape Horn just five miles apart, Brad Butterworth, the Steinlager watch captain, revealed to Dalton over the radio that they were carrying an extra crewmember. Sowry and Quilter wrote: “After a period of stunned silence on Fisher & Paykel, Brad told them who our ‘extra’ was. While in Auckland, Peter was approached by a family of an old Cape Horner, Frederick Thomas Chapman, who had recently passed away. Chapman sailed around the Horn on the barquentine Garthneill in 1924 and his family thought it fitting that we scatter his ashes as we rounded the Horn. Soon enough he came to be known as Dusty Chapman and was considered by all of us to be a member of the crew.”
Things became a lot more serious when, a few days later, all the boats heard the dreaded message. It came from a radio operator on Martela, who with a discernible sense of panic relayed the following words, “Mayday. Mayday. Our keel is falling off.”
This was followed by a latitude report then silence. In fact, the operator got out of the hatch just moments before Martela capsized, leaving the crew on the upturned hull. Merit and Charles Jourdan pulled off an amazing ocean rescue.
Blake donned his lucky red ski socks in preparation for another battle with Fisher & Paykel and the race to Punta was on, the last 100 miles offering 55 knots of wind to hasten their arrival. Once more it was Steinlager 2 who, for the fourth time in four legs, tipped over the line first in Division A, this time by a mere 21 minutes.
The incapacity of Paret on Maiden cost the all-female crew the overall lead in Division D and by the time they arrived in Punta in third place, L’Esprit de Liberte had posted a 17-hour advantage.
Punta del Este to Fort Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale had been added to the course in an attempt by organisers to raise the race’s profile in America. The reality for the crews was a series of long, slow and unbearably hot days of sailing in fluky airs, though there were plenty of tales of tomfoolery from the Punta stopover to keep spirits high.
Lawrie Smith’s Rothman’s took a more easterly course and led for much of the way to the Doldrums, going as much as 100 miles in front at one stage. But his lead evaporated in the blink of an eye when an unusual weather system gave boats to the west of Rothmans a surge of speed, the two Kiwi boats included.
For Smith’s navigator, the Englishman Vincent Geake, it came as no surprise that Steinlager 2 held such an edge throughout the race. “Peter Blake and the Kiwis on Steinlager 2 dominated the race, winning every leg,” he recalled in Life at the Extreme, the official book of the 2005/06 race. “Pierre Fehlmann on Merit predicted this before we had even crossed the Bay of Biscay on the first leg. He called us on the VHF and said, ‘Steinlager has just passed me going a knot and a half quicker, and she's coming your way!’
For the rest of the leg, it was a two-man show with Blake making it five Division A leg victories in five with a 34-minute win over Dalton. His reward was a 4ft 6in burger specially prepared by a local restaurant which kept the Steinlager 2 crew busy for the four hours until Smith joined them on the quayside. A navigational error on Maiden saw them fall behind Rucanor and L’Esprit and they achieved a disappointing fourth place in Division D.
During the 30-day stopover talks turned to the future of the event. In a conference for competitors, designers, yachting officials, sponsors and journalists discussions started on the feasibility and desire for a new class of racing yacht. The design concept, which would ultimately become the Whitbread 60 rule, was initially considered controversial as it was sure to lead to a faster ride across the Southern Ocean, increasing the safety risks in the process.
In the name of progress, the sailors argued for speed, continuing a trend that had been evident for some time. As Geake said: “Down below, the boats were getting more spartan to save weight: no partitions and no table. Steinlager ran without a heater. Our efforts to save weight also saw us allowed to carry only the minimum of clothing. For the Southern Ocean this meant the socks you were wearing when you got on and a spare.”
Fort Lauderdale to Southampton
The final leg was only 12 hours old when the first alarm bells were sounded. Herve Jan on Gatorade reported a broken spreader, which forced them into Jacksonville to make repairs. A few hours later, Rothmans were also headed for land, calling on two Lear jets to fly in parts to fix a broken shroud. The delays destroyed any lingering hopes of a last-gasp victory for Smith in his home port.
On the fourth day, Steinlager 2 was also in trouble and, incredibly, it could have cost her the race at the death. A chain plate holding the main mast and mizzen shroud failed, forcing helmsman Brad Butterworth to crash gybe to save the rig. But Blake was determined to continue even though the mast was in danger of coming down and his crew spent all night working on a new fitting that would keep them going at full speed to the finish. And besides, no one knew of their difficulties because he refused to report the breakage knowing that Dalton would push harder.
Maiden also ran into difficulty, colliding with a whale and then being spun 360 degrees by a waterspout, while the top part of Satquote’s mast fell off. For good measure, NCB Ireland broke a running backstay and Merit’s chances took a knock when a mast fitting failed. The race had started as a demolition derby and was finishing in the same vein after 32,000 miles of constant battering.
Another pattern was repeating itself in the closing stages. Four days from the finish, the crews from the two Kiwi boats could see each other and just before Lands End the match-racing between them started. Off the Lizard they were within three boat lengths of each other, the lead held by Steinlager 2, and once again Blake cancelled the watch system and pulled on his lucky socks.
Sowry and Quilter wrote: “Throughout the last night at sea, we had everyone sitting with their legs over the side to get every ounce of speed. It was working and the F&P boys could make no impact on us. They dropped even further astern and with the tide about to turn in our favour for the last 20 miles, we slowly began to relax in the knowledge that they couldn’t catch us.”
They didn’t. Dalton arrived in Southampton 36 minutes in arrears. Six wins in six legs gave Blake the Division A crown, his first win in five attempts on the race. But this event is just as well remembered for Dalton’s crew, which finished within 90 minutes of their rivals on four of six legs.
Blake was awarded an OBE for his sailing endeavours and bowed out of the Whitbread Race to pursue other interests. Tracy Edwards too was recognised with an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list for her remarkable achievements in finishing second in Division D. Lawrie Smith’s Rothmans was just off the Division A podium in fourth place, while, for all the drama, only two boats, Martela and Rucanor, failed to complete the course. The Whitbread had become the most prestigious offshore yacht race.