Lake Macquarie Yacht Rani Wins First Sydney to Hobart Race
In 1945 after the war, a group of sailors from the Cruising Yacht Club discussed having a cruise to Hobart from Sydney. Capt. John Illingworth, the British Fleet Engineer Officer, stationed at Garden island and a noteworthy yachtsman, persuaded them to make it into a race. And so, on Boxing Day, 9 yachts set out to traverse the 630 nautical miles in what was to become the inaugural Sydney – Hobart Yacht race, an icon of Australian sport. One of the smallest yachts was the “Rani”, a double ended 35 foot cutter built by Les Steel at Speers Point. Capt. Illingworth enlisted a crew of Royal Navy officers, engineers and local amateur yachtsmen to fine tune, scrub and paint. Rani was made from Huon pine planking, copper nailed to the frame. The sails were made from hand stitched cotton; ropes – Indian hemp; mast of Oregon pine.
Most of the boats were heavy cruising yachts with deep keels. In the line-up was the 52 foot “Winston Churchill”, patriotically named, and considered to be the foremost yacht in Australia; its hull was polished with floor wax so it would glide faster through the water.
Radios were not compulsory back then. Rani had loaned one, but 2 valves burnt out before they set out; so, they departed with no viable means of communication. Safety controls were almost non-existent – no life rafts, rescue ships; no helicopters to rescue or guide. They sailed with only traditional navigational aids – paper charts, compasses for steering, sextants for position.
As often happens, the weather turned on the second day of the race and they had to battle against gale force southerly winds (force 9) and wild seas with waves up to 50 feet high in the Tasman Sea and across Bass Straight. The storm lasted for 36 hours and all the yachts hove to or sheltered, except for Rani. The men were exhausted as they worked hard to keep control of Rani as they headed vertically down waves, then popped back up. The main sail ripped, but was repaired by one of the crew. Water below decks floated the labels off bottles and tins, which consequently choked the bilge pump; and left no clues as to the contents of the food containers, making meals a total surprise – baked beans or custard?
Memories of crewman Ray Richmond
Race officials and the RAAF were unable to make contact or locate them in their searches. Rani had disappeared from sight and contact; even the RAAF Catalinas despatched to track boats were unable to sight Rani. It was presumed she was lost, and that in hindsight it was a mistake to let such a relatively small yacht join the race. The storm was followed by a calm, and the Rani crew despaired that they would be last as they seemed to be moving ever so slowly.
A RAAF Catalina eventually spotted them in Storm Bay at the mouth of the Derwent River. As they moved up the Derwent and came closer, messages began to be flashed in Morse Code using car headlights, to ascertain that it was Rani and she was safe. Illingworth wanted to know how many boats were in; astounded by the answer that they were the first. They crossed the line and berthed at Sullivan’s Cove to a hero’s welcome at Constitution Dock, where they opened the bottle of whisky handed to them to celebrate their historic win. Rani took both line and handicap honours in 6 days, 4 hours and 22 minutes; arriving on 1st January, 1946. (The record now is 1 day, 18 hours, 23 minutes – Wild Oats 11 in 2012).
Rani entered the history books, not only as the winner of the inaugural race; but also as the smallest boat to take line honours; and one of only 6 to take the double of line and handicap honours.
Other Lake Macquarie boats to enjoy success on handicap honours have been Struen Marie 1951, Rival 1961 (both built by Les Steel) and Picollo 1976. In 2017, 3 Hunter boats competed – She’s the Culprit; Dare Devil; and the 70-year-old grand lady from Newcastle – Freya.
2018 will see the first all-female crew on Wild Oats 10, including MP Julie Bishop.
“RANI” – THE LITTLE BOAT THAT COULD!
Before the war Les Steel built a 35 ft yacht for one of the local doctors – Dr Rowley Pittar, in 1936, called Doris. Designed by A C Barbour, and costing 258 pounds for materials; 358 for labour totalling 616 pounds;- engine and sails were another 600. She was built as were many other boats of different shapes and sizes at Speers Point. (Row boats, motor boats, cruisers, skiffs, yachts, VJs). Les lived 2 blocks from the water with a laneway at the back of his boat building shed. To launch the boats they had to be placed on a long cradle trolley with rail wheels; then winched on to a pair of long rails. Upon reaching the end of the first set of rails, another set was placed in front and the boat guided onto them. Then the previous ones were manually shuffled to the front. This process was repeated many times from the boat building shed, across the main road until the lake was reached at Speers Point.
She was sold in Sydney after the war by a broker to Capt. Illingsworth, who renamed her Rani. We know that despite all odds, she won the first Sydney – Hobart, Dec 1945. But what happened to her afterwards?
Acquired by a new owner in the late 1940s Rani was returned in 1951 for repairs and a major refit in Les Steel’s shed at Speers Point. – materials 185; 1466 hours of labour 1150 = 1335 pounds. Sadly, after her refit, she was driven ashore onto Mungo Beach, north of Port Stevens – a total loss; but fortunately, no lives were lost.