The prestigious PONANT Noumea yacht Race will once again be conducted in 2020
1953 - the first Sydney Noumea Yacht Race
In the early hours of Sunday, September 20, 1953, watchers on the bridge of the French frigate, Tiara, anchored near the reef entrance leading to Noumea, picked up the navigation lights of a small two-sticker beating towards them.
"It's Irene," said a lieutenant after a quick look at an identification chart. "She'll be first home."
"No, she won't" shouted someone on his left. "There's another yacht still closer to us, over there." And he pointed to another light glimmering in the velvet blackness of the tropical night.
The second man was right. The light he saw belonged to George Brenac's 48-foot cutter, White Cloud, who sailed into the beam of Tiare's searchlight at 3.20 a.m. (2.20 a.m. Sydney time) to take the course record for the first Sydney-Noumea Ocean Race, having covered the 1,100 miles in 7 days, 10 hours and 50 minutes. But French-born Brenac and his seven-man crew knew they had no chance at the main prize, for the low-rating, 41-foot schooner, Irene, was hot on their tail, and her time correction factor of .7105 gave her an unassailable handicap lead on White Cloud lT.C.F..7694).
Sure enough, when Irene crossed the finish line between Tiara and Amedee island Lighthouse five minutes later, a brief calculation showed that she had nearly ten and a half hours in hand on White Cloud.
It was a big moment for Irene's owner-skipper, Newcastle yachtsman Harry Hughes. Generally speaking, Irene turned out a surprise packet. And no one thought White Cloud could outsail Frank and John Livingston's 55-foot ketch, Kurrewa III, a veteran of many ocean races including the Frisco-Honolulu and holder of the record for the Tasman crossing.
The steady weather and the swiftness with which the yachts ate up the miles provided another surprise. The wind came to the ESE on the third day of the race and stayed there to the finish.
The Cruising Yacht Club of Australia organised the first Sydney-Noumea Race at the invitation of the Government of New Caledonia, who wanted the event to coincide with the celebrations marking the centenary of French rule on the island colony.
All the entrants in this first Sydney Noumea Race were Hobart Race veterans, and two boats, Kurrewa III and Solveig, had competed in both Trans-Tasman and Trans-Pacific (Honolulu) races. The former was favoured to take line honours and the latter the handicap prize, but both were to disappoint their supporters, Solveig due to an accident which put her out of the contest.
The yachts got away to a good start at 3.30 p.m. on September 12th, all crossing the line within a few seconds of one another. Solveig led the fleet down Sydney Harbour and was first to clear the Heads. The sun was shining, and a Force-5, SSE wind gave the contestants a reaching start.
It was on the 14th that the fleet's mother-ship, H.M.A.S. Hawkesbury, which had left Sydney on the previous day, caught up with the yachts and established radio contact with them. Carrying a civilian liaison group made up of C.Y.C. secretary, David Allworth, George Barton and J McD Royal, the Hawkesbury was to provide the best radio cover so far given an ocean race in our waters.
The accident which put Solveig out of the race happened in the evening of September 15th. A cap shroud carried away and 17 feet of SoIveig's mast crashed overboard.
The crew laid the backstay along the deck to act as a temporary aerial and managed to let Hawkesbury know they were returning to Sydney under jury rig. The navy offered to tow Solveig home. but the Halvorsens declined the offer. The same morning sked which brought news of Solveig's disaster also revealed that Hughes' rhumb line strategy had paid off, putting Irene in front of the fleet. She was to lose and regain the lead several times.
Once ashore, the crews joined in the four-day round of centenary celebrations with all the gusto of sailors who have left a few days' hard seafaring behind them. The language was a problem to many, but the "parley-vooing"only added to the fun.
The prizegiving ceremony, counted as part of the celebrations, was held on September 25th. Each competing yacht got a beautifully-sculptured trophy; miniature huts, native totems carved and polished, and even a replica of a complete native village carved from one piece of wood, were some of the unusual prizes given to the skippers. The C.E. Tait Trophy. consisting of a silver platter for the skipper and silver tankards for each crew member, was presented to White Cloud as line-honours prize. An enormous tortoise shell was presented to the parent club of the winning boat; Harry Hughes accepted it on behalf of Lake Macquarie Yacht Club.
Visiting yachtsmen will long remember the hospitality extended to them by the "Association du Centenaire de la Nouvelle-Caledonie".
Reviewing the race itself, crews agreed that the radio cover was the most efficient yet attempted by the C.Y.C. This was made possible by the complete co-operation of the Navy, who made available the facilities of Hawkesbury radio room. Two transmitters were used, a low power set to work the yachts and a high-power set to send progress reports to Sydney Radio.
Special weather forecasts were prepared on board Hawksbury and relayed twice daily to the contestants.Hawkesbury captain, Lt. Cmdr. R A Scrivener, regarded the yachts as being in his personal care. When it was known that Horizon and Pavana were working down along the reef studded coast of New Caledonia, he kept the ship at two hours' notice "just in case they need assistance".
Reproduced from the CYCA Offshore Magazine No. 31, August to September 1976