The PIC Coastal Classic Yacht Race from Auckalnd’s Devonport Wharf to Russell Wharf in the Bay of Islands, is New Zealand’s premier fleet yacht race and has been held annually at Labour weekend since its inception in 1982. Apparently, it is also one of the most iconic yacht races in the Southern Hemisphere! The race is 119 nautical miles long and it usually takes from 6 hours for the fast sprint boats to up to 24 hours for normal yachts.
Last year I joined the crew of Little Jim for the Wednesday Night Races sailing under RNZYS. She was designed / built by Arch Logan and Bill Couldrey in 1934, and it is now owned and skippered by James Mortimer. We have done quite well and finished the Wednesday Night Series on the podium in our first season sailing together! Note that sailing classic yachts is quite different compared to the normal cruising charters. Of course the basics of the sailing are the same, but I would say that there is a lot more work involved when sailing the classics.
James started pitching the idea of participating in the race after the organisers announced that the life rafts are not compulsory anymore. Nonetheless, the boat still had to comply with CAT3 safety rules for offshore and ocean racing. He was just throwing a bone out but nothing has not been official yet. I probably needed around 3 seconds before I replied with a big fat “YES” and ”It’ll be an honour to do the Coastal Classic on Little Jim.“, when James texted if I want to join the crew.
This year just under 200 boats entered the race. Some boats and crew even came from overseas to beat the record. The wind forecast was extremely promising, blowing 20-25 and up to 30-35 knots in exposed parts of the race. No wonder Beau Geste was able to finish the race in 5 hours and 37 seconds… averaging 24 knots! Hats off! We needed a bit more, just slightly more. To be honest Little Jim was also the oldest boat participating in the race!
Our division started at 9.30am just off the Devonport Wharf. We reefed the main sail and used the number two as a headsail. We were expecting some rough conditions. And we were not wrong for sure! Right after the start people hoisted spinnakers and gennakers, and for most of them it did not go down well. Quite a few of them ended up in troubles. Some of them had to retire from the race, one boat even lost their mast. In the meantime Beau Geste was just overtaking everyone.
For the majority of the race we were averaging around 8-9 knots with top speed of 13.2 knots set by Ash on the helm, which is extremely impressive for such an old boat! In the late afternoon we crossed the Bream Bay, one of the most exposed parts of the race when the wind is blowing from the southwest. The waves were smashing into the bow and we were on the same tack for around 100 miles. Crossing the Bream Bay was pretty hard on our bodies. We could not move much around the cockpit because of the confined space and rough conditions. And helming was not easy either. James, the skipper, did a great job! Meanwhile, Tiago captured some really good shots on his camera.
Just before the dark the wind dropped to less than 15 knots and we decided to hoist the genoa and full main. We could already see the Cape Brett in the distance. The Cape Brett is located at the tip of Bay of Islands. It was time for our first propper meal, pasta! I cooked 1.5 kgs of pasta and 2 kgs of sauce the night before so that we could just heat it up. Luckily the boat was not leaning so much anymore, and we were also sheltered from the waves as we passed the Whangarei Heads. I should not be bragging, because I am definitely not a great chef, but it was delicious! Probably just because we were all pretty cold and being stiff from crossing the Bream Bay… and we needed something to warm us up. The Coastal Classic is quite a long race and you do get pretty exhausted. Everybody had some short snoozes during the race. We reached Cape Brett at midnight sailing really well and ahead of the plan. Rodrigo, our tactician guru, was constantly checking the wind and the position of other boats through live race tracker. We were 20 miles away from the finish line, but the wind dropped even more. We were doing only around 5-6 knots. It took us four more hours to get to Russell. We crossed the finish line exactly 4am in the morning. We were all pretty exhausted and cold from sailing. Strong and cold southwesterly breeze left some damage. Nonetheless, we were filled with joy finishing the race successfully with everyone being safe, and bringing the boat to the Bay of Islands in one piece. A small celebration with a glass of rum put everyone to sleep before 5am.
We came 4th on handicap in the classic yacht division with only 4 seconds behind the 3rd place. 4 seconds after an 18 and a half hours of racing. In another division we came 9th out of 38 boats which is also quite impressive based on the fact that we were the oldest boat, and one of the slowest yachts on handicap. After spending the morning in Russell and watching the All Blacks loosing against England in the Rugby World Cup semi-final… we headed back to Auckland.
In summary, the PIC Coastal Classic was a totally sick experience that I would really want to do it again one day.
Some of the photos above belong to: