A story by Chris Higham
Many years ago, I wrote a two-part story on the trials and tribulations of embarking on WA’s yachting bucket list event, the Geraldton Ocean Classic. It was a story that tracked my personal experiences in venturing out on the most consistent, challenging and rite of passage yachting pilgrimage in WA. It all started back in 2012 when I jumped aboard with Peter Vlaar on his well-travelled and campaigned Farr 42 ‘Farrago’. Part one of the story was titled ‘Anticipation’ and documented the sense of adventure that came with committing to this classic yacht race. That sense of anticipation of committing to and planning for a major yacht race has never left me and continues to drive a need to experience new adventures and face new challenges. As the months rolled by in 2012 and the planning started to turn into a very real diary date the second instalment came out titled ‘Trepidation’. This was an overwhelming feeling that pledging to a race like the Geraldton comes with the reality that it will result in some unpleasant and harsh experiences and the certainty that there was no backing out.
The exhilaration of arriving over the finish line in Gero and being awash with satisfaction at achieving a goal was soon tempered the following week when I was dropped off at Jurien nursing station having tried to fly inside a yacht with sharp edges. It left me feeling that I hadn’t accomplished what I set out to accomplish as the story goes that you haven’t really done a Gero unless you have successfully raced up, stayed and played in Gero for the week and raced home. Alas the 2013 campaign on ‘Numbers Game’ fell short after retiring on the final leg, eventually in 2014 after acquiring ‘Argo’ (Hoodoo Man) and the full program of racing that year, we did it.
Somehow along the way I never got to finish the trilogy and truly celebrate as there always seemed to be another aspect to the Geraldton experience that needed to be pursued. Along the way we managed to win aspects of the race program with divisional success, Lobster Pot success and even a fastest on the way home in 2017 and plenty of podium positions in between.
During this time the Geraldton Ocean Classic program came under immense pressure over its difficulty and the toll it took on yachts and crews, this was despite the fact that it was holding its own with entrant numbers with general reflection of the ups and downs of the blue water race fleets. The 2016 Dirk Hartog 400th celebrations revigorated the event and with huge financial support and marketing it saw 29 entrants with 21 in the race fleet alone. The 2017 race saw ORWA remove accreditation for the return race to count for the Siska Trophy and while the fleet up was sound, a disappointing number of yachts parked up for the week and lined up delivery crews to bring them home on the basis that the race home though conducted, would not have Siska status points. In a twist of fate, the 2017 race home was literally Champaign sailing with easterlies bringing the fleet home with speed and comfort that is very rarely seen in a Geraldton return race.
In 2018 ORWA, presumably on the assumption that Siska accreditation was the primary motivation for yachts to do the Geraldton, decided to remove the race entirely from its program, despite it being its historical 50th consecutive race. This move was promoted as a way to encourage yachts to do the Fremantle to Albany some six months later in 2019 instead.
To the credit of SoPYC, GYC and ultimately to the credit of the blue-water sailing community the 2018 Geraldton Ocean Classic ended with 19 entries making it the largest fleet outside of the Dirk Hartog 400th race for about 20 years and it is most likely going to be the most well represented blue-water race for the 2018/19 calendar year with both the Three Ports Race and the Westcoaster races having struggled for numbers by comparison. Indeed, the positioning of the 3 Ports Race (180 miles) on the weekend prior to the Geraldton saw many yachts who had committed to the event and the Race Week not enter the 3 Ports. In hindsight this proved to be the right decision to not put their crews and boats at risk of damage that would end their campaign, unfortunately two Geraldton entrants had to withdraw from the Geraldton Ocean Classic due to damage sustained in the 3 Ports.
In expectation of the mammoth task of marketing ahead, both SoPYC and GYC put considerable planning into changing the very nature of the Geraldton Ocean Classic. It was recognised that some participants in the blue-water racing program had developed perceptions that destination race weeks were supposed to be like Hamilton Island or Airlie Beach with glittering parties and international sponsors pouring expensive wines for magnificently attired guests. Those in the know however recognised that a Western Australian mid-west coastal town has its own unique charm and attractions and all that was needed was to up the ante on the quality of racing and to get the community businesses and councils on board to ensure the event was sufficiently funded to present a high-quality race regatta with a casual but well managed social program.
The Lobster Pot races were elevated to IRC regatta standard with 5 races over 3 days and the Batavia Coast Cup ended up being a full Cat 2, seven race regatta and with both YAH and IRC championship status. The SoPYC started its active marketing six months earlier than normal with extensive coverage and a very well attended information night to make sure the historical nature of the 50th yacht race was well known early. Both SoPYC and GYC embarked on a marketing campaign to attract both signature sponsors and minor sponsors with SoPYC securing IMR Technologies as the naming rights sponsor whilst GYC secured Midwest Auto Group’s Honda dealership together with several other local businesses along with the very strong support of the City of Greater Geraldton.
The Geraldton Ocean Classic now had the most prestigious Blue Water IRC Regatta Championship in the State with the largest purse by a significant margin. It also had the attention and the sympathy of the race fleet who were shocked to learn of it missing Siska accreditation. It also had the strong support of the most famous of our yacht racing icons who all wanted to be part of the 50th year celebrations. Securing the entrants was now looking a whole lot more certain.
With many of the states yachting icons being semi-retired from the race fleets and following on from the overwhelming support received in the 2016 Dirk Hartog plus several Fremantle to Bali races boosting the iconic events calendar, the final touch was added to the Legend of the Geraldton by bringing the rally fleet into the program as a formal component of the program. With six rally yachts entering the fleet, the numbers were looking like pushing well into the 20’s well before entries closed. Late withdrawal’s from Walk on the Wildside, Circa and Dirty Deeds, due to damage, together with several iconic yachts, such as Optimus Prime and Freo Doctor, whom all feel short in the end to get up to category 2 standard joined the five or six race yachts that were chasing Siska points deciding to sit the event out, saw a fleet of potentially mid-twenties pushed instead into the high teens.
With the historical race status and more complete race program, obtaining crews became a whole lot easier. The race yachts hit the start line with full IRC crew numbers leaving several crew members amongst the fleet failing to get a ride in this unprecedented circumstance. Most however, not wanting to miss the action, became ground crew and drove gear up for the yachts or just came up anyway to join in of the week’s activities. The previous difficulty of getting enough race crew for the Lobster Pot Regatta was overcome with the town flooded with many experienced sailors who were happy to do the bay races but less keen on the Cat 2 passages in their more senior years.
The bay racing was once again a spectacle with a large fleet under full spinnaker followed by the more casual rally fleet and all being overlooked by the even more casual cruise liner and her guests whilst they were in port.
So, the Geraldton Ocean Classic now has a new vision to execute and a new level of expectation to meet. The SoPYC and GYC experienced a steep learning curve this year as for the first time, we stepped into the realm of managing a Rally fleet and a social program to include yachting holiday makers. This is a cohort of highly skilled ocean sailors and racers who love the challenge of ocean sailing and bring a strong sense of endeavour and commitment to the process. They are also happy to challenge themselves and keen to retain a level of competitive expectation that needs to be both encouraged and recognised. I believe the Geraldton’s of the future will engage a wider level of participation. The ongoing support of the rally fleet who are prepared to head to sea amongst the racing fleet will continue to be met at their destination by a growing core of yachting enthusiasts who consider the Geraldton Race Week as their sailing holiday for the year, not to mention the well targeted and improved social program.
My Gero Trilogy culminates for me in one heck of a celebration. Celebration of a successful racing campaign planned and executed with care and determination. Celebration of being the inaugural winner of the Geraldton Ocean Classic Batavia Coast IRC Regatta Trophy. Celebration of being part of the birth of a new era in the Geraldton Ocean Classic which is inclusive of a wider range of yachting holiday makers, racers, rallyers and the regional community generally.
The circle begins again of course as anticipation kicks in for Geraldton 2019, Bali 2020 and beyond. I’m pretty sure there are enough unconquered quests and un-ticked boxes to make sure trepidation comes to visit again soon enough.
On a Quest !