Sydney to Hobart: the Youngest Tasmanian Female Skipper

by Laura Roper

I am the youngest ever Tasmanian female skipper to complete the Rolex Sydney to Hobart (in 5 days 3 minutes and 12 seconds and at 22 years of age!).  My name is Laura Roper and I am very happy to claim that title.

Tasmanian Female Skipper - Laura Roper, Natelle Two
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Laura Roper takes the helm of Natelle Two in the Sydney to Hobart

Sailing from Hobart

With a delivery crew of three sailors and a very keen aunty we left the Derwent Sailing Squadron in Sandy Bay Hobart on the 14th of December 2011 at 10am.  We waved goodbye and Merry Christmas to all those who had come to see us off.  Everyone that came had done something to help me achieve my dream;  from cooking, sponsorship (MountainView Meadery, The Metz Sandy Bay and Clarence Joint Therapy), aligning me with the A21 Campaign or just believing in me.  They were all there!  With one more lot of kisses, very tight hugs and the biggest smile that had ever crossed my face, we left Hobart.  And on time too!

Cruise Ships, Wildlife and Sunsets

We threw off the mooring lines and headed south down the river.  As I realised what I was about to be a part of, the excitement really set in.  We rounded Tasman Island later that afternoon and as we headed up towards the bottom of Maria Island we were overtaken by the cruise ship that had also left Hobart that day.  As Aunty Ruth contemplated jumping ship for happy hour we settled in for our first night.

Tasmanian Female Skipper - Cruise Ship
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A cruise ship departing Hobart overtakes the Natelle Two near Maria Island

The trip up the coast was beautiful but unfortunately not much wind, so the motor was going most of the way.  Between the four of us, we spotted various forms of wildlifebirds, dolphins, whales and sharks.  We crossed Bass Strait with some lovely sunset views and without a hint of treacherous water in sight.

Tasmanian Female Skipper - Sunset
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No treacherous waters in Bass Strait, just a gorgeous sunset vista!

Return to Eden

We pulled into Eden after crossing The Strait for a bit of R&R.  We stayed the afternoon and night and set out at 6am the next morning (Sunday).  As it turned out this was to be the longest day and night of my life!  The wind made 40 knots across the deck that night and I wasn’t really looking at the wave height.  I was too busy trying to keep myself awake and warm;  but I’m sure they were high.  In about 20 hours we had travelled about 50 nautical miles (in other words, not very far).  The next day, the same distance took us 6 hours.


 

Then the decision was made to head back to Eden.  We had broken the main traveller, lost a halyard and the main halyard had begun to break.  Luckily these were all easily fixed, and I was finally able to sleep for a few hours after being awake for 40.  The rest of the delivery trip was uneventful and we cruised quietly into Sydney on the evening of Wednesday the 19th of December.

Tasmanian Female Skipper - Sydney Harbour Bridge
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The Sydney Harbour Bridge: the Natelle Two crew finally arrives for the start of the race

The Sydney Whirlwind

The following few days were a whirlwind of getting the boat up to scratch, talking to media, seeing friends, safety inspections and catching up on the week of news I had missed.  Then came Boxing Day.  My day started at 5:45am.   Up early to have the final shower I was to have for five days and get myself ready for the media.  That morning I had the 6:30am time slot on live ABC TV, then on to ABC Radio live, Sky Sports News and Fox Sports News.

The final skippers and navigators briefing was at 10am.  This was where we got our final look at the weather systems moving about the coast and what we were to expect in the coming days.  Starting with a NE and turning to a southerly up to 35 knots that evening.  The weather bureau predicted this to last a couple of days and for the wind to then swing back to the north east.  We were also to expect large swell due to the cyclone that was moving through northern Australia.  With a quick good luck wish to Jessica Watson it was back to the boat to get ready.

A21 Campaign

One of the A21 Campaign staff members came to meet me and thank me for my work in helping to raise awareness about the horrors of human trafficking for the sex trade.  We carried their logo on our main sail as well as the hull of the boat and on our shirts, in the hope of helping young women that are experiencing something that I can’t even begin to comprehend and still struggle to understand.

From the Harbour to The Heads

We set off from the yacht club and the nerves began to set in.  We left early to go out and have a crew meeting in peace and quiet.  This is when we allocated jobs in the case of an emergency, notified the crew of their watches and addressed any questions anyone had.  Soon enough it was 12:30.  The nerves increased along with the number of boats and number of helicopters.

We had done our sail past with our storm sails and informed the committee of how many crew we had.  It wasn’t long before the 10 minute gun went and I don’t really remember much from then until we got out of The Heads.  I know I was shaking for part of it, as I nearly tacked into another boat, which would have spelled a very short end to months of work and years of dreams.  We were the last boat to start but we had 628 nautical miles to catch up and luckily some boats crossed the line too soon, so they were required to turn back and go through the start line again.


 

The next thing I really remember was rounding the seaward mark outside The Heads and heading for home!  The helicopters continued to buzz overhead and the spectator craft had taken off with the super maxis, so luckily we didn’t have to deal with their white wash too much once outside The Heads.

Thunder, Lightning & Other Challenges

As we headed down the NSW coast we settled in for the first watch of the night.  The change came in sooner than predicted and I wish I had pictures for you of the spectacular cloud that rolled in with the southerly.  I was too busy and it was a bit wet to take photos!  Along with the southerly change came a thunderstorm which gave some spectacular lightning, although being in the middle of the ocean with a big metal pole (the mast) sticking up in the air isn’t the most comforting place to be in the middle of an electrical storm!!

Tasmanian Female Skipper - Natelle Two Mast
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The mast of Natelle Two, causing the youngest Tasmanian female skipper some concern!

For the next two nights not much sleep was had; we found every leak that Natelle Two had plus some.  My brother was severely sea sick and Dad realised he had missed a couple of our scheduled radio contacts.  We were supposed to call in at midnight and listen on a different channel at midday.  Well Dad got them mixed up and in the end the sailing committee whacked us with a 60 minute penalty, even after Dad’s explanation and apology.

Dream Bass Strait Crossing

We had another dream crossing of Bass Strait and I am yet to believe the stories I’ve heard.  As we hit the Tasmanian coast and day began to break, the winds were perfect.  We put up a spinnaker and ran all the way to the bottom of Maria Island doing up to 12 knots as we surfed down the waves.  It was during these days I char-grilled my feet…  I forgot to put sunscreen on them, and would come to regret that when returning to work.  We also learned that water had gotten into the motor, stopping it from starting.  With Dad and Ashley on the job, we all held our breath until it finally spluttered to life.  This was the only real issue we had during the whole race.


 

On Friday we had lamb roast as we ran down the coast and moved closer to home.  It wasn’t long before Tasman Island was in view once again, and we were only 40 nautical miles from finishing.  The next major land mark was the Iron Pot.  As we approached, we realised we would have a little competition on our way up the river in the form of the yacht Aurora.  After a tacking duel around The Pot, we separated a little and were able to concentrate on our own race.

Tasmanian Female Skipper - Iron Pot
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Welcome landmarks as the crew of Natelle Two round the Iron Pot south of Hobart

The Welcome Sight of Home

It was at this point the spectator craft began to appear.  My other brother Cameron and his girlfriend came to meet us at The Pot to take some photos, along with some other boats that had come to take in the sights.  I even got to wave to Mum from a distance who was standing on the beach.  This was the first real sign of civilisation for nearly five days and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as home came into view.  We had a lovely run up the river until Opossum Bay where we ran out of wind for about an hour.  Luckily we had some friends come out to meet us for a chat, while we finished off Mum’s homemade pies.

A Happy Hero’s Welcome

As the sea breeze came in we put up the spinnaker and headed for the finish line!  Unfortunately Aurora got away from us in the lighter winds and beat us home.  But nothing could detract from doing 11 knots over the finish line under spinnaker.  As we packed up the boat we got instructions on where we would moor in Kings Pier and about doing a sail past next to the Taste Festival.  I cannot even begin to describe the feeling of coming into my home town with everyone stopping their lunch to stand up just to clap and cheer me and my crew coming home.  It was at this point I discovered my smile could get bigger.

Tasmanian Female Skipper - Natelle Two
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Natelle Two arrives home to a huge welcome from the crowds at the Taste Festival

We then headed for our berth with a prime spot next to the main jetty that everyone walks along.  I then saw a sea of red shirts on the backs of everyone that I knew and had supported me through out the past 12 months.  The announcer came over the speaker to welcome us home just as we were tying up and at that point I knew I had finished.  For the first time in my life I was the one being welcomed, not doing the welcoming!  Writing of this moment still gets me excited, with a smile on my face almost as big as the original.  The hugs and kisses ensued and I got to see my family for the first time since I left.  It may have only been two weeks but it felt like forever!

Officially the Youngest Tasmanian Female Skipper

The drinks began to flow and media began to descend, wanting to interview the youngest Tasmanian female skipper to finish the Sydney to Hobart.  Unfortunately they stuck around long enough to snap me being thrown in by my trusty crew.  It wasn’t long until the hype started to die down and I was able to focus on getting home for a shower!

Tasmanian Female Skipper - Sydney to Hobart Celebrations
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Sydney to Hobart celebrations for the crew of Natelle Two at the finish

Tasmanian Female Skipper - Laura Roper
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Laura Roper was treated to the customary dunking at the finish of the Sydney to Hobart

Tasmanian Female Skipper - Media
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As the youngest Tasmanian female skipper ever, Laura had a lot of media attention

It was an experience and a half, and I cant wait to go again.  Now that I’m already the youngest Tasmanian female skipper, maybe just as crew next time.  But right now, I am going to enjoy the little things in life… showers, flushing toilets, deodorant and CLEAN undies!

Photo Credits

Laura Roper, Ruth Heather, Val Lamont, Aleisha Duggan, Amberly Ford

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