SHK Scallywag was out in the smoke before the Grinders Coffee SOLAS Big Boat Challenge was abandoned - Credit Andrea Francolini

Grinders Coffee SOLAS Big Boat Challenge abandoned

The Grinders Coffee SOLAS Big Boat Challenge on Sydney Harbour, scheduled for today, has been abandoned due to safety concerns, brought on by the blanket of smoke and haze that swept over Sydney Harbour. The race was to have started at 12.30pm.

It is the first time the last major hit out before the Rolex Sydney Hobart has not been held since its debut in 1994 when George Snow’s Brindabella won in a building north-easterly breeze on a sparkling, warm, sunny day that set the scene for what has become a yachting institution.

Since 2007, the race has also been named in recognition of the CYCA SOLAS Trusts, set up after the tragic 1998 edition of the Sydney Hobart. Since its establishment in 1999, the SOLAS Trusts have raised more than $1.7 million and disbursed over $1.1 million to search and rescue organisations in every state of Australia and the ACT.

The call to abandon Tuesday’s edition of the Grinders Coffee SOLAS Big Boat Challenge was not taken lightly. In a statement confirming the decision late this morning, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia said: “Spectator, public and competitor safety remains at the heart of all races that the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia runs, and with thick smoke blanketing the harbour and causing visibility issues, the Club felt that this was the responsible action to take.”

Later, CYCA Commodore Paul Billingham said postponing the race had been considered.

“There’s a responsibility on us as the organising authority to do the right thing, and to make sure safety is at the forefront,” he said. “We did look at whether we can postpone the race.”

However, he said that a forecasted southerly change later in the afternoon would not be “enough to clear the smoke in any particular hurry. So, the earliest we could potentially run the race would be this evening, and even then, there is a 30 knot southerly coming through so we decided discretion was the right thing. So, the race was officially abandoned.”

Asked if the possibility of holding the race tomorrow or another day, Commodore Billingham said: “We did look at that, but the logistics again of getting the super maxis into the water – we are really grateful that the owners of these boats put them up for what is a charity fund raiser – is pretty hard.

“They are moving into their pre-Hobart preparations now, so we decided not to postpone this (race) for 24 hours. It was an option, but once again with the weather as it has been, there as not guarantee that it would safe tomorrow either.”

Commodore Billingham said the danger of an accident in the smoke blanketing the harbour was high and that skippers of the six boats were consulted before the race abandon.

“Our major decision was, what happens if we have a collision on the harbour,” he said. “Our concern was that a small spectator boat might get in the way. The yachts all carry IRS.

“They can generally see where each other are, and they are generally sailing in the same direction… But you can’t allow for the unforeseen circumstance of a small boat getting in the way.”

The health risks of the conditions were also a major factor taken into consideration.

“That is pretty significant as well,” he said. “These super maxis don’t start themselves. There is a lot of hard work going on there. Safety of the crews, in all respects, is really important.”

Commodore Billingham said contingency plans are in place should weather threaten the scheduled Boxing Day start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart yacht race on December 26.

“We have a lot of contingency plans, but certainly have we planned for what would happen if we have a smoke bound harbour? No, we haven’t. So, we are working on that now.”

Rupert Guinness/CYCA media

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