Y'all come back now, ya hear - Heaven Can Wait, a personal journey

Granny Jen on Lake Macquarie during the Heaven Can Wait regatta - Heaven Can Wait
Greg Dickson
'Good mooooooorrrrrrning, Lake Macquarie!'

Heaven Can Wait 24-hour yacht race competitors were greeted by that Robin Williams-style reveille harking back to the movie Good Morning Vietnam just after 6am on Sunday as the marathon race drew to a close.


The radio wake-up call was a bit of light relief on the part of the cancer charity event’s principal race officer Blake Middleton, delivered in his distinctive North American accent. Middleton, a cancer survivor himself, is more usually talking to sailors on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota, which he refers to as his 'Up Over, not Down Under' homeland.

And a little light relief was welcome after a tough night of driving rain, winds to 25 knots and cold, as the fleet reported in their positions for the morning radio sked.

Overnight incidents included several boats grounding in shallows and the disappearance of one of the rounding buoys which had blown ashore.

When it was all over at noon that Sunday the skipper of division one scratch winner Stealthy described it as 'probably the toughest 24-hour race we’ve sailed'.

Stealthy, owned by Bob Cowan, was this year skippered by World Volunteer of the Year Michael Cowan, and the sports boat sailed 137.84 nautical miles, completing more than four laps of the lake. 'It was a very wet ride, so much so that one auto-inflate life jacket inflated by itself when its wearer was climbing into a bunk for a rest,' Cowan joked. 'There were rain squalls, wind squalls and rum squalls, what a bloody night.'

As one of the six crew members of Gosford entry Granny Jen, a 37-foot Hanse, I found there was never a dull moment during the 24 hours on the lake and the race lead-up. The constantly changing weather and new demands of night sailing added greatly to the challenge. The fact I was sailing as a relative novice with highly experienced crew members Glenn Ingle, Phil Tayor, Dave Bracher, Greg Lowe and Stuart Ambridge meant I was learning heaps along the way.

Getting there was half the fun, as they say, and in this case it sure was. It was a very pleasant reach up the coast on flat seas to Belmont from Gosford. Starting at around 5am on Friday, we averaged eight knots in 15-20 knot westerlies by sticking close to the shelter provided by the land while those who left from Sydney and struck out beyond the tankers were hit by gusts more than 30 knots.

Another novel experience as we sailed into the lake past Swansea bar was being 'skull dragged' up the channel in an area were keel boats regularly run aground. Avoiding the danger involved an inflatable boat tying a line to our spinnaker halyard to heel the yacht over as we navigated a particularly shallow part. Our hosts later made it clear that the need for regular dredging was just as much a political hot potato here as are the hazards of Half Tide Rocks are back on Brisbane Water.

Special guests at the welcome dinner at Toronto Royal Motor Yacht Club on Friday night were ISAF Sailor of the Year nominee Nathan Outteridge and Australian Sailing Team Development Squad member Will Ryan who spoke about the challenges of competing at an international level. Both competed in the Heaven Can Wait One Lap Dash, a shorter race for faster craft which starts in tandem with the 24-hour yacht race.

Sleeping aboard at Toronto Marina our Saturday sunrise alarm clock came in the form of dragon boat rowers being shouted fierce war-cry instructions by the person whose job it is to shout fierce war-cry instructions, but that was OK.

The races started in 8-10 knots gusting to 13 and for the Moths in the 28.5 mile one-lap dash it was all over in a little under three hours. Line honours were not decided until the last mile with the lead constantly changing between foiling Moths steered by Outteridge and Scott Babbage, with victory going to Babbage but Outteridge’s lap record established last year never threatened. The division one dash handicap winner was Mike Green’s Evergreen.

Meanwhile in the 24-hour race it became, as one competitor commented, 'a war of attrition' with cold southerly squalls continually coming through carrying buckets of rain making it particularly testing for smaller boats.

Granny Jen’s crew routine of three-hours-on, three-hours-off worked well and the squalls punctuated periods of steady cruising with moments of intense action. The most memorable moment was when our spinnaker was hoisted in light breeze but became a real handful when 20 knots suddenly hit us and one of the sheet ropes detached. This led to a frantic effort to haul the sail below decks before it could be damaged or lost overboard. You had to be there.

In the final wash-up Granny Jen finished fifth in division one and fifth on handicap and was proudly leading the fundraising 'virtual race', so far contributing almost $5000 to the $27,000 so far raised.

Granny Jen helmsman Glenn Ingle said overall he was quite pleased with the boat’s performance considering she was an untested boat sailing with her 'new boat delivery sails'. Owner David Rowe, who was unavailable for the race, has plans to be back and sharing helm duties in the same race next year but like all competitors he will be hoping for drier weather.

Middleton said the race was building a reputation of being a 'magic' event he described as like offshore racing inshore, with the lake topography presenting additional obstacles and the possibility of sailing many miles and making numerous gear changes. 'It’s an adventure, just ask Nathan, you can be empowered by events like this,' said the MS survivor.

Footnote: Funds are still being sought for the Cancer Council’s men’s cancer fundraiser with all funds to be spent in the lake region. To contribute go to the event website and follow the links.

Heaven Can Wait website