Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The 115

If only Sydney to Hobart hopeful Katwinchar could talk. At 115 years of age, as the oldest yacht to ever compete in the race, she would have a story to tell.

We’d ask what it feels like to be still going, after all these years, having been built in London in 1904 by keg makers in the famous Watney brewery, which was owned by Ricardo Gilbey Watney.

Katwinchar and skipper Kendal Barry-Cotter.Credit:Jacky Ghossein

We’d ask what was said on board after she was bought by fisherman Brian Mossop and then sailed more than 22,000 kilometres, across the Atlantic, and then Panama, and then onto Sydney, before setting sail for Hobart for the 1951 race.

We’d ask just what happened when the boat was blown off course, only for the crew to eventually bring her back towards land, stopping into Triabunna, north of Hobart, to get on the drink on New Year’s Eve, before sailing to Hobart three days later where they were promptly disqualified.

We’d ask about how northern beaches man Frank Barry-Cotter bought her in 1960, sailing Katwinchar around Pittwater and Sydney Harbour for five years, before she was sold again.

We’d ask about all the missing years that followed until Barry-Cotter’s son, Bill, started searching for the 32-foot ketch he had been mesmerised by as a kid.

We’d ask what it felt like to be sitting in the front yard of an elderly woman’s home at Hexham, just north of Newcastle, ready to be taken to the tip when suddenly, out of nowhere, her phone rang.

We’d ask about Bill finding about the boat through an ad on Gumtree, promptly buying her, then spending two years and more money than he cares to mention to bring Katwinchar back to life.

We’d ask what it felt like to slip into the water just three months ago in preparation for another start on Boxing Day in the Sydney to Hobart, no less than 68 years after her first and only attempt.

“Yes,” smiles Bill, “Katwinchar would have some story to tell.”

Boats don’t usually talk to you unless you’ve had far too many rum and cokes, so Bill and his brother Kendal, who will captain Katwinchar, will have to do.

“I was an apprentice boat builder when Dad got it and I was really intrigued with the construction of it,” Bill says. “It was very lightly built and different in shape to most other boats. It was radically different at the time; about 60 years ahead of its time.

“About 14 years ago, I started the search to find it. I placed a few ads in boating magazines but then, two years ago, someone called me and said it was on Gumtree and they were selling it for nothing.”

Bill transported the boat to his base at Hope Island on the Gold Coast and for the next two years — about 10,000 man hours — breathed life back into Katwinchar. His team of boat builders replaced the rotten English oak, the deck, keel and cabin and added aluminium masts. The original Canadian cedar in the hull remains.

“There’s not many people around who would have the vision or drive to take something in that condition and totally restore it,” Kendal says. “Especially with all the safety and stability requirements for a professional ocean race like the Sydney to Hobart.”

Indeed, a yacht that is older than the Titanic would have a story to tell.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter came 70 years ago when Mossop bought the boat and sailed with his wife, Dorothy, and fellow fishermen Bill Bartlett and Dennis Tanner to Australia. They arrived in Sydney 196 days later — and just five days before the Hobart race started on Boxing Day in 1951.

There were only 13 other boats in the race that year. This year, which marks the 75th anniversary of the race, there are 164 entrants.

Bill won’t be on board after suffering a heart attack three months ago. Doctors have banned him from competing in the race.

But he has a very competitive and experienced crew on board, including sailing icon Michael Spies, who has made the 630-nautical mile trip to Hobart 43 times.

“There are 116 Sydney Hobart races between the first five of the six crew members on the boat,” says Kendal, who has sailed in the race 11 times, although this is his first since 1985.

Bill hasn't entered Katwinchar in this year's race simply for the purposes of nostalgia.

While the 100-foot supermaxis such as Comanche and Wild Oats XI will fight it out for line honours, he has his eye on handicap silverware. The boat is second favourite with the bookmakers behind Ichi Ban.

“It’s all subject to the wind direction and pace,” Bill says. “We’re a little boat. If it’s a slow race we’ve got a good chance.”

The oldest boat in the fleet winning the Sydney to Hobart race in its 75th year? That would be a story worth telling.

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