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Growing pains for shorthanded racing

Published on June 6th, 2021

As shorthanded divisions get included in full-crew events, the question is asked if they can compete for overall trophies. While fewer crew should translate to less performance, autopilot technology has surpassed human skills. The Australian publication reports on a debate that led to litigation.

The legal storm that hit the ­highest level of Australia’s sailing circles began to blow in the lead-up to last year’s Sydney to Hobart.

For the first time in its history, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia – the prestigious Sydney Harbour institution that runs the famed race – was taking a different tack, opening-up to the emerging class of “two-handed” boats.

Smaller, and crewed by two sailors, they were equipped with better technology – and crucially, an autopilot – and would be pitted against larger boats with crews who helmed themselves south.

Into this debate entered Mark Hipgrave, a Brisbane yachtsman most at home with solo sailing.

He had entered the race with Mister Lucky in 2017, asking five other solo yachties he’d sailed against in Britain to join him to reach the six-crew minimum.

As preparations for the Boxing Day race – later abandoned due to the pandemic – continued, tensions over the new “two-handed” boat arrangements simmered.

It was rumored powerful forces in the sailing community were set against allowing the change.

And, like most things in the digital age, the disquiet flowed on to the internet and directly into the solicitors’ office, setting Hipgrave against a former CYCA commodore, Matt Allen, a retired Sydney banker and Australian Olympic Committee member currently offloading his Darling Point home for a cool $80 million.

The legal stoush – now largely resolved – was triggered by a Zoom meeting late last year when current commodore Noel Cornish, the former Snowy Hydro chairman with 13 Sydney-Hobart races under his belt, told prospective two-handed entrants he was being lobbied to exclude them from competing for handicap honours against the bigger boats.

“Cornish told us he was under a lot of pressure and that if he stuck to the decision that we were eligible for the Tattersall (handicap) Cup there would be a protest at the end of the race,’’ one meeting attendee who did not want to publicly wade into the stoush told The Weekend Australian.

“He didn’t want that; it would have been a bad look, especially with some of the big names.’’

Even though he was soon to become a founding director of Offshore Doubles, set up to promote the emerging class of racing, Allen was immediately suspected of involvement in the lobbying.

“With two multimillion-dollar boats, a professional crew, and indulged by the CYCA to enter both boats each year, why would Matt feel threatened by a group of low-budget sailors,” Hipgrave wrote.

Worse, he made the mistake of repurposing an internet meme – a clip of the film Downfall – to suggest Allen was acting somewhat like Hitler. It did not go down well.

Allen, the owner-skipper of two-time race winner Ichi Ban, immediately launched a defamation suit in the NSW District Court against Hipgrave.

In court documents, Allen said the video was viewed 1600 times before being removed and had made him out to be “megalomaniacal, dictatorial and obsessed with winning” the race.

“I’ve arranged to have the video taken down, sent Matt an apology letter and offered to make a substantial (for me) ­donation to a sailing charity of his choosing, but he wants more,” Hipgrave wrote in a request for assistance defending the suit.

The stoush blew out from there. Hugo van Kretschmar, another former CYCA commodore best known for holding the job during the disastrous 1998 race when six sailors lost their lives en route to Hobart, waded in to offer $1000 for the defence fund – and offered some unsolicited commentary about Allen.

Clearly, Allen was not for turning. The legal stoush was finally resolved on May 29 with apologies from both Hipgrave and van Kretschmar, who are also paying Allen’s legal expenses.

Now, van Kretschmar has also issued an apology after he ­“endorsed the contents of a parody video which had portrayed Mr Allen as Hitler, and also suggested that Mr Allen had acted in a bullying and unconscionable manner towards Mr Hipgrave”.

“I acknowledge that the suggestions I made about Mr Allen are false and should never have been made,” he wrote.

It may never be known if Allen was for or against the “two-­handed” boats – he declined a request for comment as did Hipgrave and van Kretschmar. Either way, Cornish had already bowed to the discontent and announced the “two-handed” boats that would have made their debut but would only race against each other in their own division.

At the time, he said: “With hindsight, because of our enthusiasm in embracing two-handed sailing, we may have acted too quickly allowing two-handed boats to be eligible to compete for one of sailing’s most prestigious trophies, the Tattersall Cup.”

And while the legal dispute has been resolved, Hipgrave is still facing further action.

Allen has filed a separate complaint against Hipgrave to Australian Sailing – supposedly with the support of Cornish and other CYCA members. That could force Hipgrave from competitive racing in Australia altogether.

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