Sydney Hobart Photo Gallery: Leica Virgin

The Sydney to Hobart is one of the greatest sailing events anywhere on the planet, and as such, crowds flock to see the start on Boxing Day every year. It is an institution of Australian sport to rank alongside the State of Origin, an Ashes Test Match, the F1 Grand Prix or ‘the race that stops a nation’, the Melbourne Cup. All of these aforementioned sporting events, however, are much more accessible to the average spectator. Yet there are still great ways to witness the action as the fleet leaves Sydney Harbour each year on December 26.

POINT OF VIEW

Some of the vantage points are from shore; the best of these on the western shore are Bradleys Head, Chowder Bay, or Georges Heights; on the other side, good spots are Shark Island, Steele Point, Vaucluse, South Head and The Gap. North Head also provides a good view and allows one to see the fleet as it heads off towards Tasmania.

Being out on the water itself, of course, provides an even better way to take it all in. Hundreds of craft of all shapes and sizes line up alongside the exclusion zone and then chase the racing yachts as they set off on the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s 628 nautical mile race. Good positions include Taylors Bay, Chowder Bay, Obelisk Bay, Watsons Bay and Camp Cove. And, if you do not have your own boat then there is always an opportunity on one of the official spectator vessels.

All of the above provide wonderful opportunities to view the start of the race and excellent vantage points for photography. But if you are a keen photographer the chances are that unless you have a very good long lens then you are going to be disappointed with your photographic results as the images you will end up with will not live up to the real thing. The boats are simply too far away from the shore. If you're at anchor you need to be 100 metres away from the exclusion zone, or if your boat is moving then there is a six knot minimum wash. The other drawback is that the boats at the front of the race fleet, the most photogenic, super maxis such as Wild Oats XI and Comanche, are incredibly fast.

THE MEDIA BOAT

The best way to get the top quality images is to somehow be allowed inside the exclusion zone. For practical purposes the only way to do this, apart from being on one the contestant boats, is from a media boat. The half-dozen media boats are provided by the CYCA Media Team, which is headed up by the fantastically helpful the media director, Di Pearson. Each boat has around eight assorted TV crews, radio reporters, journalists and photographers on board.

I have been lucky enough to be on board one of these media boats for several years now, so I know the ropes fairly well. The media boats set off at 11:30am for the 1pm start. We position ourselves somewhere up by the Sow and Pigs Reef on the eastern side of the main shipping channel between Middle Head and South Head, and wait for the countdown to begin. The media start to prepare themselves, the TV crews do a few set ups, the radio correspondent checks that their station is ready for live commentary, we photographers find a position and start taking shots as we pass the race boats while they're hoisting sales and getting into the groove. Everyone on board the media boat can feel the pre-race tension, the butterflies in the tummy. For some it is their first time, and as we sit in the swell eating the diesel fumes, sea-sickness can come into play.

Even those of us who are old hands and know we are going to get pretty wet once the sprint off the line starts and have come appropriately attired still feel those big-match nerves. And this year I am feeling nervous like the very first time. The reason; I have a fantastic new camera kit and have not yet had the chance to try it out on the water. Having made the decision to upgrade from my very serviceable Olympus OM-D E-M10 system and make the significant leap (in both price and quality) to the Leica CL system – I am somewhat ill-prepared. I was hoping to have a good practice run a week or so earlier at the SOLAS Big Boat Challenge, but due to unforeseen circumstances I was unable to make it. Apart from a couple of snaps in the back garden, this would be my first time using my new Leica CL with its 18-56mm and 55-135mm lenses.

ROLLIE, KOHLI, LEICA!

Those of us who hanker to take better photographs will have, at some point, coveted a Leica camera with which to do it. Leica is to cameras what Ferrari is to the automobile, Rolex to the timepiece – it is the Winx, the Virat Kohli, the Gucci, the bee’s knees; put simply, it is the classiest bit of camera kit you can get. The most desirable and legendary camera of all time, used by such luminaries as Henri Carter Bresson, Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Robert Lebeck, Alberto Korda, Elliott Erwitt, who all took iconic photographs you would recognise in an instant on a Leica camera with a distinctive red logo.

So here I am in the very best position, with the very best camera system, on a glorious picture-perfect summer day of 25 degrees with a slight east-north-east blowing, for the start of one of the most dramatic events on the sailing calendar – and I am very nervous. Is this kit too good for me? Will it pack up at the first sign of a splash of water? 

Apart from the nerves instilled by the event itself and the costly new kit which I have not used before, there are other more mundane practicalities to consider. With my Olympus system I have two camera bodies and a range of lenses covering 14 – 300mm, with my Leica system I only have one body and no long lens until budget constraints allow for more. I start to take some shots of the pre-start manoeuvres and checking the images on the 3-inch LCD touchscreen on the back of my smart new camera, I start to relax – it is going to be fine.

THE START

The presenter from ABC is feeling sick, her cameraman also lurching about with the roll of the boat; the reporter from one of the news agencies has not really got a clue what is going on as she normally covers the crime beat but is enjoying a day out of court; the radio journo is doing his preview which sounds suspiciously like the one I heard him do last year; and all of a sudden the race is on. While not as dramatic and windy as the last couple of years the leading maxis are still getting a move on.

No time now to worry about my kit, there is a job to be done, images to be captured for magazines and websites. Now it's all about trying to focus (literally and figuratively), not fall overboard (just literally), make sense of the mayhem around one as one looks through the high-resolution 2.36-million pixel EyeRes viewfinder, while on a boat churning through a sea like a washing machine, to take photographs of other boats doing the same – you are down and they are up, you are up and they are down. Relax, breathe, take my time, pick my subject. It is like being James Bond but without getting hurt, apart from being thrown around the media boat as we try to keep ahead of the oncoming pack of racing boats and chasing spectator craft. 

Out through the heads, it is mayhem as usual. And then my battery dies. No problem, I duck down below, pull my reserve battery from its waterproof wrapping, a quick swap and then back up on deck to continue shooting, the Leica fast and manageable and capable of up to 10 frames per second continuous shooting.

WE DID IT

And then it is all over. The super maxis led by Black Jack have swept by in a flash and are quickly out of sight, the main fleet goes past and we turn and head back towards the Race Village at the CYCA, acknowledging the last few small stragglers still making their way out between the Heads.

The results, well I will leave you to judge the images you see here. The Leica CL does what it says on the box – ‘Dream big. Pack small’. For the kind of work I undertake it is a perfect combination of discreet size coupled with mechanical precision and state of the art technology. The cost of the body alone is $3,700, and then of course the fantastic quality Leica lenses are at a further cost. The APO-Vario-Elmar-TL 55-135mm f3.5-4.5 ASPH which most of these images were taken on and proving to be just the ticket, costs $2,600; while the Vario-Elmar 18-56mm f3.5-5.6 ASPH comes in at $2,350. Certainly, quite a bit more than the Olympus body and lens I have been successfully using up until now. To my mind though there is no going back - I now need to start saving for that second body! And the great thing is, thanks to its L-Bayonet mount, any of the Leica lenses from its other systems will fit the compact CL. For $8,800 the Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f2.8-4 should get me even closer to the action for the 75th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race next time out!