As a former competitor and lifelong spectator it stings to imagine a Boxing Day without a Sydney to Hobart skirmish. Officially, race organisers are deferring a final decision until October, but there is no way the yacht race can go ahead in 2020 unless there are drastic changes to current health guidance.
The bluewater classic is one of the slickest sporting events on the annual calendar, and the race committee, athletes and media operators are all truly world class. They need to be.
This event caters for a global audience, and after 75 consecutive editions it now transcends sport as a cultural and economic tour de force for the states of Tasmania and New South Wales. Images of the start and finish are broadcast around Australia and the world.
There is no doubt a cancellation will be a difficult and unpopular decision given the unwanted economic consequence inflicted on professional athletes, boatbuilders, photographers, sailmakers, freelance journalists, event staff, caterers, equipment manufacturers, hospitality workers, event staff, hoteliers, publicans, tourism operators, restaurateurs, airlines and countless others that derive income from the event.
Not to mention the joy, camaraderie and friendships forged or strengthened on docks or amid the salt spray that will be surrendered in 2020. Or the lost Boxing Day chats featuring Wikipedia-pipped facts about Wild Oats XI to impress family and friends gathered in a post-Christmas haze to watch the race from the shoreline or on television. If ever there was an end of year staple to look forward to, it would have been this year as a small reward for those who have suffered during the lockdowns.
For a race steeped in decades long heritage and with hefty social and economic considerations at play, a decision to delay a final call in the hope of a drastic change is understandable. But the organisers will be forced to make the only decision they can in one month: to cancel the regatta and stage it in 2021.
Sailor and community safety is paramount – to be accredited and cleared to start the race each team needs to have at least half the crew graduate the Safety and Sea Survival Course and have at least two accredited senior first aid certificate holders. The boat certification process and equipment scrutiny is an even more exhaustive audit.
Race organisers have a reputation for being unapologetic in their tough stance on competitor and spectator safety. It would be inauthentic for the race committee to ignore their core value – safety – and as they cannot guarantee community and sailor safety due to the spectre of Covid-19, they have no choice but to delay.
Given the international talent pool drawn upon for this race, its global pedigree is in jeopardy this year. Boats are shipped to the start line from some of the most famous ports in the world and entire teams and individual sailing mercenaries alike fly in for it. America’s Cup conquerors, Olympic gold medalists, Sail GP champions and Volvo Ocean race winners have all lined up for the 628-nautical mile start line in recent years.
Given the restrictions and cost of global travel many of the highest-profile sailors would not be able to make their way to the start line. For an international race with a storied 75-edition history, having a line honours champion from a heavily diluted competitor pool could in some way diminish the prestige of the race, as victory would not be honed in competition against the world’s finest.
As protests in recent years have reinforced, sailors defend the letter of the law, so it is unlikely any competitor would break from the health guidelines of experts. While sporting competition is continuing in empty stadiums around the world the allure of this race is the spectator involvement. The crammed start with boats pushing up against the edge of the course is without peer – it makes all sailors bristle with anticipation every year.
Limitations on the amount of people who are able to gather outside in a public place and the addition of social distancing places serious limitations on spectator craft on Sydney Harbour. But even with dispensation from that, it would be harder to navigate beyond the same state government guidance which recommends ceasing sporting activities that result in an overnight stay. That is an un-clearable hurdle for a race that stretches on for days.
This is an incredibly physical race – as recently as 2015 nearly a third of the fleet had to retire due to boat breaking conditions. The race skirts three different state coastlines – NSW, Victoria and Tasmania – and while a boat in distress would find safe harbour regardless of closures, this would take valuable emergency resources away from the states.
Those making it safely to the finish line would have to pre-register for a QR code and be advised to quarantine in Tasmania for 14 days. As is tradition most of the sailors – after racing from just under 48 hours to closer to a week – almost universally head to the shoreline and grab a cool drink to celebrate their milestone. If it is a requirement to head straight to a hotel for a period of quarantine it quells the joyous Constitution Dock camaraderie and is a significant deterrent for professionals and amateurs alike.
Community wellbeing will always be at the forefront of the organiser’s approach and they will make the only call they can, but some of the highest profile crews have already hinted their intention. The last three yachts to claim line honours victories – Wild Oats XI, Comanche and Infotrack (which won as Loyal) – are yet to enter the race. The Derwent is destined to be less dynamic this December.