Sydney to Hobart: a past and a present winner

Magnus Halvorsen, Trygve Halvorsen, Elnor Bruem and Carl Halvorsen at the opening of the 2007 exhibition Dreamboats & Workboats – The Halvorsen story at the ANMM.

Magnus Halvorsen, Trygve Halvorsen, Elnor Bruem and Carl Halvorsen at the opening of the 2007 exhibition Dreamboats & Workboats – The Halvorsen story at the museum.

It’s another afternoon of chaotic, stormy weather as I put these words together. It reminds me of a simple thing the late Trygve Halvorsen said to me not long ago about the Sydney to Hobart race: ‘You have to finish to win it’. He was stressing what seems an obvious point, but his message was that you have to carry with you in the good weather the weight of that extra material and strength that are needed to survive the bad stuff. There is no point in being a fair-weather boat only, or to sail south in one that could not cope when things turned for the worse.

Trygve was probably built that way, too. His lifetime of boats, sailing and ocean racing came to a close in November this year and took in 94 years, a lifespan with plenty of good weather, but he had the character to see through the rough stuff, too. It was all shared closely with his brothers and family in their different areas and periods of the Halvorsen boatbuilding trade. At the end he was a true finisher and winner, someone who could look back with no regrets about the course he took in life, love and sailing.

Freya on the Solent in the Admirals Cup

Freya on the Solent in the Admirals Cup. Private collection.

Freya seems to encapsulate the story his life could tell. It has strength with robust construction, beauty in its lines and trim – a winner built with skills accumulated from a practical boatyard apprenticeship and education. Hands-on work gave him an instinctive understanding of style and engineering. With Freya he designed a fast, sea-kindly cruising yacht that was also a winning racing yacht, and the crew were just as important in the yacht’s ability to win those races, especially the famous – and still unequalled – 1963–65 Sydney to Hobart hat-trick. It was a team sport and everyone played their part. This approach works in business and helps a family through their journey, and that’s how it ran with Trygve.

Have things changed? Last year’s Rolex Sydney to Hobart winner, Darryl Hodgkinson’s Victoire, is raced by a ‘Corinthian’ crew – a team of amateurs who are at the top of their roles, sailing in a 2006 New Zealand-built yacht. It was marketed by Cookson Yachts as a turbo-charged cruiser–racer. It sports a canting keel and canard centerboard, carbon spars, square-top main, ‘wifi’ remote control of the hydraulic sheet winches, and asymmetric spinnakers – all details that are at the leading edge. Victoire comes from Bruce Farr’s design studio; he was also self-taught, designing and building his own craft and progressing from skiff to yacht designs. Farr had a brilliant feel for lightweight structures and hull shapes. But today, it’s such a tight contest, with complex rules and structural requirements answered with state-of-the-art design methods and high-tech materials – the fine margins and tolerances in today’s competition need a computer to refine what begins as a broad concept that intuitively looks good.

Victoire, November 2014. Photograph reproduced courtesy Andrea Francolini.

Victoire, November 2014. Photograph reproduced courtesy Andrea Francolini.

Freya – the cruising yacht design – had considerable attention to detail and innovation that put it well to the forefront in its own time of classic slide-rule engineering. Three custom-made winches were manufactured by Malcolm Barlow in Superston aluminium bronze alloy, and they barely needed any maintenance in their lifetime, the wear was so low.

Freya used the Halvorsens’ special cast-swivel fitting that they had been developing since the late 1940s for the two spinnaker halyards to reduce wear and increase longevity. The shrouds were connected to ‘U’ bolts in the deck, and these were then tightened under the deck for rig tension, and made the rig secure from any accidental or other tampering.

Perhaps the most innovative feature was the deck-stepped mast, where the heel fitting was a ball joint that concentrated the load to a central point and allowed the base to move around at that point in sympathy with any mast bend or rig stretch. As a consequence the mast never developed any sideways ‘S’ bends, and had real value in sail shape control. The aft lowers allowed the mast to bend forward under load. Therefore, as wind pressure increased, the mast bent with a curve forward, which automatically flattened the mainsail curve so that it was better suited to the increased wind strength.

Freya sail plan drawn by Trygve Halvorsen. ANMM Collection

Freya sail plan drawn by Trygve Halvorsen. ANMM Collection

Victoire reflects the exponential leap in technology that has occurred since then. It’s a highly strung machine, eager to break free with the wind on its quarter, and it’s a fulltime project to run, managed by a crew and support team keeping everything up to the task – because you still have to finish the race to win it.

In celebration of Trygve’s life, his wife Noreen, daughters Erica and Nina, and other Halvorsen family members all came together at a well-attended commemoration event at the CYCA. Around the room were some of those few left who were there with him in the decades he raced, the pioneering days of Australia’s rise to the top of ocean racing and yachting, along with sailors inspired by what has paved their way – it was all about farewelling a life connected to the sea and its moods, and how those shaped a man’s course.

Older brother Magnus is now the last of that Halvorsen generation. His sailing career as co-designer, builder and skipper evolved into that of a first-class navigator – he knows better than anyone where he has been and even now, closing on his centenary year, there is every chance he is plotting the route ahead, and probably keeping the rhumb line just over his shoulder.

All going well, Magnus and his son Niel will be at the start line sending off the yachts on Boxing Day for the 70th Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht race. Victoire is once again in the fleet. Last year’s win has been banked, with the interest accrued ready to be spent as experience, but it’s no big head start as everything is pretty much back to square one for all the crews as the gun goes off. Everyone is there for the challenges of the race and the attraction of the open sea – the tradition carries on, and so will the Halvorsens.

– David Payne,
 Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

Read more about the history of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race through our digital story, or find out about our photographic exhibition Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race: 70 Years

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