Celebrating its 44th Anniversary, Sydney’s Short Ocean Racing Championship under the progressive thinking of the Middle Harbour Yacht Club, continues to meet the constant evolution of yacht racing.
For many yacht owners and their crews, the two day regatta sailed over tight courses off Sydney’s Heads, Beaches and, at times, within the Harbour, is vital to their preparations for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race (CYCA) and Pittwater to Paradise Regatta (RPAYC).
The Regatta has also seen the racing debut in Sydney waters of several maxi yachts and other significant grand prix yachts. In the heyday of the international Southern Cross Cup series in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Regatta was also used as a selection basis for Australian, New South Wales and Club teams.
First introduced in 1980 as a weekend regatta, the Short Ocean Racing Championship began with the enthusiasm of the JOG (Junior Offshore Group) fleet, joined by a small but successful number of larger ocean racing boats based at Middle Harbour, attracted by the idea of regatta racing as a change from their regular combined club races to Long Reef, Lion Island and Botany Bay.
The Bruce & Walsh SORC, as it was then called, quickly attracted the interest of ocean racing yachts and sailing administrators from other clubs in Sydney and Pittwater and from 1980s onwards the regatta became a featured event on the Sydney Saturday offshore pointscore sailing program.
The JOGs raced under their own specific handicap rule, a combination of measurements and performance. The ocean racing handicapping for larger boats, both short and long course event, was then under the IOR (International Offshore Rule), a rating rule based on complex measurements.
The competition provided by the SORC has played a significant role in preparing yachts for the Sydney Hobart and other long ocean races. MHYC member John Eyles skippered the Farr-designed Indian Pacific to an IOR victory in the gale-swept 1984 Sydney Hobart. Two years later Indian Pacific won the IOR championship of the Bruce & Walsh SORC.
But IOR handicapping, designed to achieve a 'level playing field' for yachts racing offshore, was declining in popularity worldwide. Development under the rule in design and construction technology was causing rapid competitive obsolescence of older boats. Yachting administrators at the international, national and club level began looking for an alternative to enable well sailed and equipped older IOR boats to compete equitably with new 'grand prix' type boats.
Australian clubs tried out an 'Australian TCF' and the UK-originated CHS (Channel Handicap System) and the International Measurement System (IMS). Eventually, IOR disappeared and was replaced in most major events by IMS including in 1994, the SORC and the Sydney Hobart.
During the changeover, many events catered for both IOR and IMS handicapped boats, with Middle Harbour one of the first clubs to foresee the future of IMS. In 1993, MHYC entry, Cuckoo’s Nest, owned by Nigel Holman with Hugh Treharne as sailing master, was one of the early overall winners of the Sydney Hobart under the IMS overall category.
By the late 1990s, IMS was accepted by most Australian clubs as the new international offshore handicapping system and the 1997 and 1998 SORC regattas saw Ragamuffin and the Admiral's Cup 40 One Designs Loco and Sledgehammer as winners under IMS against strong fleets measured to this rule.
Ord Minnett assumed sponsorship of the SORC in 1997 with the regatta considered to be the second largest offshore event on the NSW offshore racing calendar (only the Sydney Hobart was larger) with entries exceeding 100 yachts and some 1000 crew. In 1997, 1999 and 2001, the Australian Yachting Federation (now Yachting Australia) used the SORC as a selection trial for the National and State representative teams competing in the Southern Cross Cup in those years.
As the world neared the turn of the century, another change in handicapping for offshore racing was in the wind in Australia, driven by the Royal Ocean Racing Club in England which offered IRC (International Rule Club) as a 'secret' rule that would offer more equitable handicapping across the fleet and more cost effective than IMS.
Again, Middle Harbour was one of the first clubs to look at an alternative to IMS. The concept of the IRC rule was designed to prevent people from distorting their boats to reduce their rating, being primarily designed for dual-purpose cruiser/racers, well equipped and well sailed.
Australian yacht owners quickly adopted IRC as a better alternative to IMS and the 2000 SORC, branded as the Chase Ord Minnett Short Ocean Racing Championship, included a strong IRC division.
The regatta was expanded to two course areas to meet the growing fleet contesting four sprint style races, with specific divisions for Farr 40s, Sydney 38s, Super 30s, JOGs, Beneteau 40.7s, as well as IRC, IMS and PHS rated boats. Another significant move was, with the wholehearted support of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia and other Sydney clubs, to make the SORC a standalone regatta.
The 2000 Chase Ord Minnett SORC was a significant event in Australian yachting, indicative not only of the growing strength of IRC, but also showing just how ‘class conscious’ local offshore racing was becoming. Of the 84 entries, 27 raced one design in the Farr 40 and Sydney 38 classes.
IRC was the biggest class in the regatta with 19 starters and results underlined the attractions of the rule – the winner was Saltshaker, a Sydney 36, second a Welbourn 50, Heaven Can Wait, and third overall the Swan 48 Loki. Yendys, the Farr cruiser/racer which had won the 1999 Sydney Hobart under IMS, took out the IMS division.
The 2001 SORC had a new sponsor in JPMorgan, with the regatta underlining the growth of the one-design Farr 40s and Sydney 38s. A feature was the high quality line-up of grand prix ocean racers, including the maxi Brindabella making a return to racing after being lengthened to 80-feet LOA, Bumblebee 5 with designer and MHYC member Iain Murray on the helm, along with past Sydney Hobart winners Ragamuffin, Terra Firma and Ninety Seven. Bumblebee 5 went on to win the 2001 Sydney to Hobart.
In an innovative move to increase spectator interest in the popular regatta, MHYC decided to use inshore and offshore courses each day for the 2002 event. One course was for Sydney 38s and Farr 40s, the other for IRC, IMS, PHS and JOG rated classes, with the fleets alternating inshore and offshore each day.
The public on spectator boats and on the headlands of Sydney Harbour certainly got their money’s worth when the Sydney 38s and Farr 40s raced on the Sunday in fresh and gusty wind of up to 30 knots. More than half a dozen yachts blew out spinnakers and the skipper of one Sydney 38 went overboard. His crew quickly recovered him.
Offshore, the newly launched 90-footer Alfa Romeo made her Sydney racing debut with owner Neville Crichton winning all four races on line and IRC handicap. Alfa Romeo went on to take line honours in the Sydney Hobart later in December – and is still a top ocean racer. Now named Rambler and owned in the USA, she finished second across the line, second overall and first in her class in the recent Rolex Fastnet Race.
The overall IMS winner of the Sydney Hobart Race that year was Quest, the Nelson/Marek 46, which had finished second in the IMS division of the SORC.
The JOG fleet was still a key part of the MHYC SORC, with interest centering on the performance of the newly launched, state-of-the-art Young 31, Krakatoa. However, she placed only third overall.
2002 was the final Short Ocean Racing Championship to include an IMS division with all boats racing IRC in 2003, including the Victorian super maxi Skandia. She spreadeagled the fleet in every race and won the last race on corrected time, finished second overall to another new grand prix racer, the 60-footer Loki. The SORC produced another Hobart Race winner – the Don Jones-designed Skandia taking line honours in 2003.
In 2004 the SORC attracted a record 93 competitors, including 29 IRC boats and 26 Sydney 38s. A further 62 boats also competed in the Savills Twilight Sail as a more casual lead-up the weekend regatta.
While firmly established as one of Australia's major IRC grand prix regattas, the SORC continued to attract a strong line-up of PHS and JOG rated yachts and One Design classes. The JOG fleet had evolved in recent times to include the high-performance Super 30s while the new Sydney 32OD class had joined the one-design fleets.
The standard of competition was exceptionally high in the Farr 40s, with international competitors Evolution, Emotional Hooligan, Brighton Star and Ichi Ban competing in a close-fought series. The Sydney 38s attracted a record 26 competitors from around the nation.
As always, the SORC 2005 opened a month of offshore grand prix sailing in Sydney for yachts entered for the long ocean races to Hobart and Coffs Harbour. The IRC division was split, with Class A catering for canting keel yachts such as Wild Joe and Alfa Romeo and other big grand prix racers, Class B for boats generally under 60-feet LOA.
However, in another innovative move to cater for cruiser/racer yachts not so interested in short-course offshore racing, MHYC introduced the Savills Seven Islands which took some 30 cruiser/racer boats the length and breadth of Sydney Harbour with Shark Island, Clarke Island, Fort Denison, Goat Island, Cockatoo Island, Snapper Island Spectacle Island as marks of the course. A record 69 boats also competed in the Savills Twilight Sail, making a total of 178 entries sailing under the Regatta banner.
The big issue worldwide for IRC yachts during 2006 was effective and equitable racing divisions and MHYC's regatta director John Hurley consulted with owners and the combined Sydney clubs to provide the right answers for tight windward/leeward courses. IRC was split into two divisions by ratings, the result being excellent competition with only a handful of points between the top boats in both divisions.
Loki, winner of IRC Class, went on to place third in Class B of the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart and, more recently, place IRC fourth overall and second in IRC SZ class in the Rolex Fastnet Race in the UK Le Billet, winner of IRC Class 2, took out the Pittwater/Coffs Harbour Series in the following January.
Winner of the Farr 40OD Class in 2006, Lang Walker with Kokomo, has continued his success on the international scene, recently placing second in the Farr 40 European Series and the Rolex Baltic Regatta. PHS Division winner, Middle Harbour Chairman Tony Bates continued his success with Viva La Vita, winning his division at the 2007 Audi Hamilton Island Race Week.
In 2007 the addition of the IRC / PHS Cruiser Racer Passage Course added another dimension to this premier grand prix championship. In 2008 was the inclusion of the event in the CYCA Ocean Pointscore. Always an innovative event, the Regatta has played a significant role in the transition from the IOR to IMS and then to the IRC rating rules used to handicap ocean racing. It has also been the major local regatta of the year for Australia's one-design classes.
To make the regatta more attractive once more to club based boats, in 2008 MHYC's professional race management team headed by John Hurley introduced a new format for an IRC Cruiser/Racer Class and PHS Class Ocean Passage Series.
These boats and their owners and crews, who have been the backbone of the SSORC over the past 29 years, will race in a Short Ocean Passage Race format, with one race each day, starting and finishing in Sydney Harbour.
This format provides a different set of technical challenges to the windward/leeward course areas and will be more attractive to the club-based sailors. The start, in Sydney Harbour, also provide a bonus for the general public and sponsors, who use the regatta to entertain clients.
At the same time, the regatta format for the IRC grand prix class (sailed in multiple divisions), along with the Farr 40, Sydney 38 and Sydney 32 one design classes competition saw an increased from four races over two days to six races over two days, using windward/leeward courses.
Always looking to innovation, in 2017 the Sydney Short Ocean Racing Championship changed to a 2 race format using a hybrid course of laid and virtual marks for the first time.
In 2018, organisers responded to feedback from the competitors to return to a 4 race format. A long passage race on the Saturday with 3 windward-leeward races for all classes held offshore on the Sunday. This has gained acceptance as the best format enjoyed by a range of boats.