DREW Murray planned to sail his yacht from New South Wales to Tasmania for Christmas Day in 1998, but could sense there was something in the air.
“I went down as far as Gabo Island, and whilst the weather looked perfect to cross Bass Strait, I could smell that it wasn’t,” he said.
He headed north to spend Christmas Day at Disaster Bay and anchored overnight, then travelled to Eden. He listened to his radio on Boxing Day as boats competing in the Sydney to Hobart sped down the eastern coast at record pace.
The experienced Launceston sailor has 100,000s of miles under his belt and knew the race was heading for disaster. Others in Eden were also concerned, and refused to head out to sea themselves.
“Sometimes we just shouldn’t be there,” Mr Murray said.
When the wind is above 28 knots, sailors usually avoid heading into Bass Strait. The storm that followed blew winds in excess of 65 knots, gusting to 80 – or above 120 kilometres per hour.
Five boats sunk and six lives were lost.
Two of those were on board Launceston boat Business Post Naiad, men Mr Murray knew well.
The remaining crew was flown to Merimbula where Mr Murray met them and helped emergency services assess the damage to the boat in Eden.
“I was given half an hour or an hour to try and gather together some of the personal effects of the crew,” he said.
“I was wading through the boat when it got to Eden – it was like a bomb had gone off inside the boat.
It must have been hell on that boat.
A coroner’s inquest reported in 2000 and found severe faults in the management of the race, resulting in a range of recommendations to improve the future safety of the Sydney to Hobart.
But Mr Murray said even the most advanced safety upgrades would not prevent further disaster in the future, especially if organisers were reluctant to postpone or halt the race.
“Racing boats are, by design, meant to go fast. They’re built from the lightest materials, you only need one thing to go wrong, one fixture to break, and then you’ve got a crippled animal,” he said.
“If you combine that with the super forces that came into play in the ‘98 Sydney-Hobart, it was the extreme event, people are going to die.
“It’s the seamen that survive because they’re practiced.
“It will happen again, it’s just a matter of the big wheel going round, the timing.”
While the 1998 Sydney to Hobart was allowed to continue in the face of an extreme storm, the Melbourne to Devonport – scheduled to start on December 27 – managed to be postponed.
Sidmouth sailor Nick Edmunds competed in the race, and remembered meetings held by the Victorian Racing Club on Boxing Day when they decided conditions were far too rough to hold the race.
“If it was 28 knots, you wouldn’t go out in Bass Strait. You wouldn’t start the race if it was anywhere near that,” he said.
“You need to be safe. That’s a decision of the skipper on the boat.”
Mr Edmunds recalls sitting at Queenscliif Wharf listening to the disaster unfold on Boxing Day via their radios.
“There was just one boat they were calling all the time – Team Jaguar. It was like it was the only boat that was in it,” he said.
“That wasn’t the story though, and it wasn’t until the next day that we heard what actually happened.”
Mr Edmunds said the Melbourne to Devonport had the benefit of being able to wait longer to make a decision, and conceded it would have been difficult to stop the Sydney to Hobart once it had started.
“They were out there at the wrong time,” he said.
“If you do go out in that, then you have to keep going.
“You can’t be sure, can you? It’ll probably happen again.”
‘Perfect storm’ just a matter of timing
The worst of the storm that hit Bass Strait on Boxing Day, 1998, lasted 10 hours, caused 60-foot waves and winds gusting at 80 knots.
The strength of the east-coast low that created the conditions was considered unusual, but not completely unheard of. Bass Strait is prone to volatile weather that can quickly develop.
CSIRO Climate Science Centre senior research scientist Michael Grose said a warming atmosphere would increase the intensity of cutoff lows, which can cause extreme weather events on the south-east Australian coast and Tasmania – like those experienced in 1998.
But he said there was still uncertainty about the impact the changing weather systems would have on storms in Bass Strait.
“Bass Strait already gets some extreme weather from time to time, and this is expected to continue,” he said.
“The specific storms that affect the strait may be affected by climate change, but this is not entirely clear at the moment.”
Mr Grose said the “frequency and intensity” of the systems might also change.
Eastern Australia experienced severe storms just one week ago – early enough to avoid impacting yachts in the Sydney to Hobart.
Launceston sailor Drew Murray said those storms could easily have impacted on Boxing Day, and will one day strike on that day again.
He said that part of the ocean – where he regularly sails – was prone to volatile weather.
“That corner of Bass Strait where it happened, it’s the washing machine of the world as far as ocean goes,” Mr Murray said.
“It gets funnelled in through King Island, Wilsons Promontory, northwest Tasmania, it comes right across the Indian Ocean, Southern Ocean, bottlenecks through Bass Strait, and it exits right there.
“The South-East Equatorial Current also stops and turns right there.
“You’ve got that force coming south, meeting this force coming through Bass Strait – that weather, what’s going to happen? It’s going to go up in the air, it’s just a matter of the difference between the highs and the lows.”
Forecasting systems were updated following the 1998 Sydney to Hobart.