The following is a guest post by Dennis N.T. Perkins, author, with Jillian B. Murphy, of Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race about his experience completing the course of the Sydney to Hobart race as a way to understand and connect with the experience of the crew of the AFR Midnight Rambler and other winning teams. The following is adapted from his blog posts for Sailing World Magazine, which you can read in full at the Syncretics Group website.
Before I could write a book about the Sydney to Hobart Race, I had to become fully immersed in the research. Going beyond interviews, I got to know and sail with the exceptional crew of the AFR Midnight Rambler: Overall Race Winner of “the Hobart” in 1998. And eventually, I found a spot on a 60-foot racing boat, the Dragon, so I could complete the 723 mile offshore ocean race myself.
Tuesday was the day we had been waiting for. I was amazed to think that I was pulling away from the dock just like AFR Midnight Rambler in 1998. Of course, I was in a Volvo 60 and they had sailed a Hick 35. But it was the same feeling, and they would be racing again that year in a Farr 40.
The amazing story of the Midnight Rambler’s triumph was the thing that had initially captured my attention. Much of my motivation for being here was driven by a desire to tell their story with a deep personal understanding of the race.
The start of the race was the intense, adrenaline filled experience everyone talks about. The day was sunny and the wind was great. The starting line is divided in two, to keep the smaller boats from being crushed by giants like Skandia and Maximus, both 98 feet. At 60 feet, we were among the smaller boats in the big boat starting area, but we were right there with all the fancy maxis favored to take line honors. I was so focused on not screwing up the runners that I didn’t take it all in, but I saw AFR Midnight Rambler speed by us. What were they doing at this part of the line, I wondered? Trying to win another trophy seemed to be the obvious answer.
We got off to a great start, but our pre-race equipment problems and lack of training time quickly caught up with us. As we came out of Sydney Heads, the course turned to windward and we needed to drop our spinnaker. The Volvo 60 has a halyard locking mechanism at the top of the mast to take strain of the lines while under sail, but it took several attempts and precious time to release the lock and drop the sail. But the time we got it, we were rounding the mark and it was too late to control the sail. Ultimately, after much yelling we had to let the halyard run through the mast and drop the sail into the water. We pulled it aboard like a huge, dripping fish net.
Our strategy was to immediately head offshore to take advantage of exceptionally strong currents heading toward Hobart. This was clearly the right strategy, and for a time the tracking reports had us near the front of the fleet. However, there were pros and cons to our strategy. Although we never got sustained gale force winds, the combination of the three knots current in one direction and the previous several days of strong winds from the other, caused particularly difficult sea conditions offshore.
All in all, it was quite an adventure. I came away with a feeling of accomplishment, and the knowledge that a lofty goal can be personally revitalizing. All the training, preparation, and focus had paid off. I had come away with a deeper understanding of the story of the Midnight Rambler, and what it must have taken for them to win the Tattersall’s Trophy in those incredible seas. And I had also come to understand leadership and teamwork in a different way, looking up from the bottom of the pyramid in a new and, often, foreign organization.
Dennis N.T. Perkins is the author of Into the Storm and Leading at The Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition. He is CEO of The Syncretics Group, a consulting firm devoted to effective leadership and teamwork under conditions of uncertainty, adversity and change.