2015-12-31 / Around Town

The Great Spirit of Comanche Ruled the Race

By Joe Berkeley

Comanche skipper Ken Read, right, savors the moment at a press conference with boat owners Jim Clark and his wife Kristy Hinze-Clark. (Photo by Nic Douglass, AdventuresofaSailorGirl.com) Comanche skipper Ken Read, right, savors the moment at a press conference with boat owners Jim Clark and his wife Kristy Hinze-Clark. (Photo by Nic Douglass, AdventuresofaSailorGirl.com) Someday in the future, maybe 10 years from now, Ken Read’s grandchild will sit upon his knee and look up at his distinguished head of gray hair and say, “Grandpa, tell me the story of how you won the 2015 Sydney to Hobart Race one more time.”

Read will lean back and smile. He will not feel the urge to embellish the tale, or stretch the truth, or fudge the details one bit. What really happened on Comanche, which won the 628 nautical-mile race in less than two and a half days, is as good a storybook tale as was ever told.

In every heroic narrative, there needs to be an insurmountable obstacle. For the crew on Comanche, the first night of racing on Dec. 26 provided such a dramatic moment when her starboard carbon fiber dagger board was destroyed.

Joe Berkeley is an amateur sailor and a professional writer. His work is at joeberkeley.com Joe Berkeley is an amateur sailor and a professional writer. His work is at joeberkeley.com “A few hours into the heavy air upwind we heard several bangs after a bad landing off a steep wave,” wrote Newporter Nick Dana, a veteran of last year’s Volvo Ocean Race and a member of the Comanche crew. “We quickly realized that our dagger board had snapped off and was being dragged along underneath the boat with its control lines still attached.”

At the post-race press conference, Read spoke about assessing the danger. “The first thing that happened was we had to get rid of the board,” Read said. “It was attached by a bunch of ropes and you could hear it flailing around under the boat. I was most worried about the sharp edges actually puncturing up through the hull of the boat. So we desperately were trying to cut the ropes. And of course when we got rid of it, we saved the hull but kind of cleaned out the rudder on the way through.”

“So what it did was it actually wrecked the steering system inside the boat, the tiller arm got broken off, and when we finally inspected the rudder, it was facing backwards.”

For most crew, this would be a sign that the race and the regatta were over. “That’s when we said we’re done,” Read said. “We stopped and took all the sails down. We actually started kind of drifting back towards Sydney.”

But most crews don’t have Newport’s finest onboard. Read said, “All of a sudden I see the tools come out and when I see the tools come out with these guys that’s usually a good sign that they have an idea.”

Casey Smith, Comanche’s Aussie boat captain who relocated to Portsmouth, led the charge to repair the steering system. According to crew member Dana, “Casey began figuring out solutions for reattaching the broken rudder tiller arm. Louis Sinclair and I then came in as the worker ants for Casey and worked for about 30 minutes until the rudder was once again attached to the steering system. On deck, the team was not sure if we would be able to get it fixed. So they began heading back for Sydney.”

Read checked in frequently on the progress of the repair. Casey told him, “Mate, don’t go anywhere. Let’s just hang here for a little bit.” After the crew did their repair work at sea, just three stainless threads held the steering system together. Then it was time for Read to make the toughest call of the race.

Forget about “Tack or stay?” the big question was, “Was it safe to continue?”

Read and his advisors (known as the afterguard) decided it was. It was not a decision they made lightly. Read said, “This is a hard race. I have sailed around the world two and a half times and I thought I had seen it all but this is one hard body of water.”

With Big Joe Fanelli leading the grinding team, Westie Barlowe from Narragansett doing whatever was necessary, and pugnacious Jimmy Spithill on a busman’s holiday from Oracle steering every chance he got, the yacht that is lovingly known around the world as the “fat bottomed girl” sent it and arrived at the dock winning line honors with a time of 2 days, 8 hours, 58 minutes and 30 seconds.

According to Dana, every second after the repair was made, “the boat was a dream and gave us an awesome ride to Hobart.” Just 50 miles behind Comanche was George David’s Rambler 88 with Jerry Kirby on the bow, his son Rome calling tactics and grinding, and Mick Harvey of Newport’s legendary International Yacht and Athletic Club on board.

It was the first time in the history of the Sydney to Hobart race a woman owner won the event, and Kristy Hinze-Clark was jubilant. When asked if the team would be back to defend next year, her husband and co-owner Jim Clark was hesitant. Without missing a beat, Hinze assured the press Comanche would be back for more.

Tim Hacket, one of the maxiyacht’s project managers who supervised her build at Hodgdon Yachts wrote, “After a busy year with the boat, constantly improving our performance it's great to be back in Australia and come away with the win. The boat was certainly put through its paces during the race. We are assessing the damage but there is nothing that we can't address when we get back to the U.S. in six weeks.”

Ken Read has raced around the world two and a half times and he’s forgotten more about sailboat racing than most people will ever know. But one thing is for certain. He’ll never forget the time his team hung on by three stainless steel threads to win the Sydney to Hobart race in the most outrageous yacht to ever hit the water.

Read said it was “one of the most intense, unpredictable, and crazy wins I have witnessed in my career. All thanks to an amazing team and a special boat. Great to be a part of it but even better when it's over!”

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