Wong wants more after stormy debut

Justin Wong will be back for unfinished business in the Sydney to Hobart race this year and will also compete in a regatta across the Atlantic.
Justin Wong will be back for unfinished business in the Sydney to Hobart race this year and will also compete in a regatta across the Atlantic.ST FILE PHOTO

Fierce winds break rudder in Sydney-Hobart race but he's hooked on long-distance races

Since its inaugural edition in 1945, the Sydney to Hobart yacht race has earned a reputation for being gruelling, unforgiving, even dangerous.

Its worst tragedy happened in 1998 when an exceptionally strong storm sank five boats, killed six people and only 44 of the 115 starting boats reached the finishing point in Hobart, Tasmania.

National sailor Justin Wong thus had ample reason to worry when, less than a day into his first Sydney to Hobart race, fierce winds caused his boat to suffer rudder damage last Wednesday morning.

"Losing your rudder is similar to losing the wheels and steering wheel on a car. Imagine being out at sea like a car without wheels with strong winds and big waves around you - it's actually really dangerous," said Wong, who was part of the 11-man crew on the German-owned yacht Rockall.

"Anyone would be disappointed (with the retirement) as we were doing well up to that point, but I'm also pretty happy we're all back on shore safe and sound."

Rockall's crew was left 60 nautical miles (111.1km) from shore but managed to keep the boat afloat before a police boat towed the stricken craft back to port. It retired from the race.

The harrowing setback, however, has only made two-time Asian Games gold medallist Wong more determined to prove his mettle in future long-haul offshore races.

  • 630 

    Distance (in nautical miles) of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

The 31-year-old intends to return to Sydney this year for another shot with the same crew and boat, and will also take part in the 3,000 nautical mile Atlantic Anniversary Regatta (East) in July, which runs eastward from Bermuda (about 1,770km east of Florida) across the Atlantic Ocean and up the English Channel to finish in Hamburg, Germany. The regatta takes around three weeks.

"For a few years, I've been put off from trying the (Sydney-Hobart) race because of all the stories I heard," said Wong, who won a keelboat match racing gold at the 2006 Asiad in Doha and was part of the victorious match racing J80 team at the 2014 Incheon Games.

"This year, I finally did it and it was an eye-opener seeing how everyone on the boat was really calm in that situation. So I won't let small damage like this get in my way of (trying) more of such races in the future."

The 73rd Sydney-Hobart race was won by supermaxi LDV Comanche, after initial winner Wild Oats XI was given a one-hour penalty for a near collision.

Wong joins a handful of Singaporean sailors who have competed in the illustrious race, including three-time Olympian Siew Shaw Her, who raced in the 1990 edition on board a boat called Singapore Girl.

As a full-time professional sailor, Wong sails for Australian team Neptune Racing and has been based in Perth since 2012.

He also accepts ad-hoc crew requests from private boat owners, which was how he became part of Rockall's crew.

"I'll be doing both types of sailing in the World Match Racing Tour (a pro sailing series) next year, which will be my main focus," he said.

"That's the plan for me, along with the long-distance races."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2018, with the headline 'Wong wants more after stormy debut'. Print Edition | Subscribe