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December 29, 2002

From newcomers to old hands

From: The Age, Australia - 29 Dec 2002

By David Pescud

Five in the morning in Sydney, it's grey and raining - not much of a Boxing Day as I make my way to the boat for a television interview with crew member Harold Merlib, who is hearing impaired and an original Swd (Sailors with disABILITIES) member.

We do a final check. Is it all here? If it isn't, it's too late. It seems such a long time ago that Sailors with disABILITIES did its first Hobart in 1994 in Aspect.

At 10am we say goodbye to friends and well-wishers, the eastern sky is lightening and the rain has cleared.

Aspect Computing hoists her emergency storm sail. It is checked, brought down and stowed, and hopefully that's the last time I see it. My mind swings back to 1998 when that sail was the only thing that kept us going.

The 16 people on board have been training for 12 months now. We have a mixed crew of amputees, vision and hearing impairment, dyslexia and spina bifida.

It is now 12.50 pm and the biggest rain squall of the day has dumped on Sydney Harbour on the 10-minute gun. I can hardly see the bowman's signals. Is he up or down?

The 50 other boats are all trying to make their way through the driving rain. The mainsail has dumped two gallons of water on my head and my hood is not up. I can feel the water running down my spine. The gun goes and Aspect is off. Through the heads, reaching the sea mark, the 80-foot Dreamland comes rolling over the top of us. We set the jib top and head south, steering 150 to get into the eastern current.

The nerves of the day and Sydney Heads slop takes it toll on some of the crew; there goes breakfast!

Late afternoon and we can see Kiama on starboard beam rolling along in good company.

The boat and team are working well. We have spaghetti bolognaise for dinner. Those who are still seedy miss out and the rest get double.

Dawn breaks on the 27th. Aspect is showing good company and good speed. We have seen whales and a sunfish at sunrise. Reaching along at 10 knots. This is a good Hobart run, but Bass Strait is yet to come.

We slide by Green Cape for our safety radio check. The amazing thing is that 50 per cent of our team are new Hobart people and they have all settled in and are working well. We have done 10 spinnaker changes now without incident. It is tricky to do in the day, let alone at night. The front seems to be shifting. Originally from the south-west, it is now east-south-east. There is a large dark squall on our bow, which may be the front.

Quest is running alongside us and we have both changed our heavy spinnakers and jibed on to starboard to move away from it. Yeah, here it is, a classic front, bucketing down rain with no wind.

Slowly the sails take the new breeze and Aspect is reaching again, pressure up to 25 knots and a fast ride across Bass Strait.

Down the Tasmanian coast yesterday with a clear blue sky to port, trying to run down the two boats in front, Dreamland and Quest, and thinking about our first beer. It's funny, you start with 16 people and in 48 hours' sailing together you have a crew. Hobart we can see you.

David Pescud is skipper of the Sailors with disABILITIES crew.

Copyright © 2002 The Age Company Ltd