EXCLUSIVE

Macksville Stingers' Rhys Jones on tackling 'sailor's Everest'

It's been two decades since Rhys Jones last took on the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, but this year the Macksville Stingers coach felt he had something to prove.

"I did it to prove to a lot of the younger players in the club that if you put your mind to the task, and never give up, anything is possible," he said.

Rhys was part of a 14-person crew aboard the famed Cookson 50 yacht About Time skippered by owner and noted Sydney jeweller Julian Farren-Price.

The boat has a swag of honours to its name, including several Pittwater to Coffs, but it had never attempted the ultimate challenge. In its maiden Hobart, About Time crossed the finish line in 23rd position.

This capped off Rhys' ninth hurrah, many of which had turned characteristically nasty. But this was the unicorn of Hobarts; weather-wise it was perfect.

After his kids were born, Rhys Jones vowed he's do no more Hobarts. He's just finished his ninth, wearing his Macksville Stingers cap the whole way. Photo by Mike Morrison.

After his kids were born, Rhys Jones vowed he's do no more Hobarts. He's just finished his ninth, wearing his Macksville Stingers cap the whole way. Photo by Mike Morrison.

"The wind flew us down the coast, and we were leading at one stage. We nearly got to Bass Strait in the first 24 hours. Then the wind course changed and we went out to sea to find some breeze," he said.

It was there, in the middle of the ocean, that the crew ran into trouble.

The boat runs hydraulic winches, so it needs the engine to idle to hoist the sails.

"While doing a sail change the engine overheated and cut out, causing carbon monoxide to fill the cabin. It was pitch black and we were in the middle of the ocean."

"Half of the crew continued racing the boat. The other half were taking turns to find out what the issue was."

The crew's navigator Julie Hodder said the engineers discovered that something had blocked the water intake, causing the engine to overheat.

"Could have been a plastic bag or maybe the sunfish we hit," she said.

"It was the blackest of nights I have ever seen and we felt it too dangerous to put up more sail - safety first! We had to sit upstairs for some time until the smoke cleared and watch our competition go sailing past."

The crew had lost two hours of racing time.

"After that we were playing catch-up and doing everything manually," Rhys said.

But there was another challenge just on the horizon. As About Time was rounding on Tasman Island, they veered west, to find absolute stillness. There was not a whisper of wind for five hours. With only 80 miles to go, the wait was infuriating.

Tasman Island - beautiful, unless it's the only thing to look at for hours on end. Photo by Julie Hodder

Tasman Island - beautiful, unless it's the only thing to look at for hours on end. Photo by Julie Hodder

When they arrived in Storm Bay they were the only boat in sight.

"At dawn a whole armada of yachts started appearing on the horizon, powering out of the blue," Julie said.

But then the wind picked up, and the race started all over again.

"There were two much faster boats chasing us down the Derwent. We were like a V8 Commodore being chased by two Ferraris," Rhys said. "But because they should have already beaten us it spurred us on to come in ahead of them. We ended up beating them by three or four minutes."

Rhys is now recovering from a pinched nerve in his hip, sunburnt lips, sleep deprivation and the mental fatigue that comes from staying switched on 24/7.

But the experience was worth it: the sense of freedom; the sighting of eight sunfish; the dazzling green phosphorescence in the deep blue; the twilight that extends for ever; and the sense of unity as the crew crossed the finish line after pushing harder than they had ever done before.

"I was never going to do another one, but this crew got me. Besides, this proves I've still got it," he said.

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