December 18, 2017: SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - Pay attention - it all gets a bit complicated - Bob Steel won the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s Rolex Sydney Hobart in 2008 on his TP52 Quest, and he had already won the race once before, in 2002, on a different boat also named Quest. When Steel quit ocean racing he sold Quest, (the TP52) to Paul Clitheroe. Quest became Balance, and Clitheroe steered Balance to overall victory in the 628 nautical mile race in 2015.
"Bob Steel holding the Rolex watch he won in 2008. In the 2017 race he's hoping for a threepete" - photo credit © Rolex
Throughout 2017 Clitheroe has been campaigning Balance in Sydney, but because his son is getting married at a most inconvenient time, Clitheroe can’t do the Hobart this year. So Bob Steel is back for the duration of the race and Balance is now Quest again. Got it?
The overall winner is awarded a Rolex watch on the Hobart podium, so Clitheroe has one, Steel has two, and if boats could wear watches, I guess Quest would have two as well. So does Bob really need a third?
“Look, two are very satisfying, but three would be more satisfying, and I’m a greedy person. Three would be nice, four would be better.”
The truth is, Bob has a really good chance. Quest may be a 13 year-old boat, but she has seen a host of improvements over the years, all centred around a Bruce Farr hull that was originally designed for the TransPac Race. It is therefore well suited to the waves of a Tasman Hobart compared with more recent TP52s, which tend to be designed with the flatter waters of the Mediterranean in mind.
Steel also has a really good crew. The Quest core has been with him for years, and stayed with Clitheroe on Balance. They know how to go about winning, and Steel has a few ideas about how to keep a good crew on its toes for the full two and a half days it will take Quest to reach Hobart.
“We have fun on the side of the boat, but I say, ‘listen’, after we’ve spoken about last night or the night before, ‘please talk about how we might make the boat go faster. Is the bow in, or is too much weight in the bum’? Communicate, because the youngsters on the rail may well see something the afterguard doesn’t.”
It is a bit of a lottery, though. Steel remembers being glad-handed as the provisional winner for 36 hours one year, until one of the very last boats got a lift and snatched victory.
“We lost by seven minutes.” Ironically, when Quest did win in 2002, it was by seven minutes too. This after a long wait while a smaller boat steadily closed in on Hobart in race winning time, until it parked for hours in the darkness of a shut-down Derwent River. It’s not a new story.”
An intensely competitive man, for all his ocean racing successes Bob Steel came to the sport late in life.
“I was rugby player, a rugby league player, a tennis player all my life. I thought sailing was boring. But I realised that there is a difference in the adrenalin build, because in all contact sports it is an immediate adrenalin rush when you hit someone, but this is a slow adrenalin build, and the adrenalin is with you for far longer,” he says.
“You can be approaching a mark 500 metres away, and 10 other boats are converging on it, and you know that if you don’t get round first you could end up a long, long way back. And then throw in the weather and a long spinnaker run.
“And at 71 I can still contribute to the boat and be part of a top team. You can’t do that in rugby. Sailing is great for competitive old farts.”
Steel will drive Quest as hard as he can. It is the only way he knows how to sail: “If we do everything right we have a chance of being in the money. One mistake and you are out of it.”
The race starts on Boxing Day at 1300hrs AEDT and will be broadcast live on the Seven Network throughout Australia.