Please select your home edition
Craftinsure 2023 LEADERBOARD

Rolex China Sea Race 2023: the Whiskey Jack story

by Guy Nowell and Nick Southward 21 Apr 17:33 BST 5 April 2023
Whiskey Jack heading for Subic and historic win in the Rolex China Sea Race 2023 © Guy Nowell / RHKYC

18 boats crossed the start line of the 2023 Rolex China Sea Race, including three TP52s and the RP76 Centennial 5 (formerly known as Jelik). 'Suspended' by Covid restrictions since 2019, it was good to see Asia's premier blue water race back on the start line. Yellowbrick was tracking the race, and Nick Southward’s J/109 Whiskey Jack jumped into the overall lead almost straight away. It looked grand, but enthusiastic supporters of WJ in Hong Kong were very much aware that there were 500 nm to go, and it was rather too early to be counting any chickens.

At least those of us watching at home had Yellowbrick to follow – on board, satellite connections proved to be highly fallible, and Whiskey Jack was actually ‘flying blind’ for the whole of the race. The only people who didn’t know where they were in relation to the fleet were the ones on the boat.

We know the outline of the four-day race – slow, slow, quick, and quicker. Here’s the story from on board, from what turned out to be “a truly great sail, with totally unexpected icing on the cake at the end.” Pre-race optimised routings from the day before the race, proposed both an easterly route (calculated from the ECWMF weather model), and a westerly track (from the GFS model}. “There was quite a choice to make as both sets of routes were well off the rhumb line.”

In the event, the choice was easy – after a damp and gasping start out of Hong Kong harbour, past Shek O Rock and then Waglan, the wind direction was more or less from the south south west, and all forecasts showed the new wind was coming in from the east, so it was logical to go east and get the new wind, which took an agonising two days to arrive. “The first 48 hours involved an upwind beat in gradually weakening breeze until becoming totally becalmed in a transition zone east of Pratas Reef on the second night out of Hong Kong. In the middle of the night the skipper woke up to a roaring noise, “fearing that we were in the breakers and about to be cast onto Pratas, but instead it was a front between two currents, like a river full of whitecaps, which spun us gently 360° and let us go again, still facing in the right direction. There are sea monsters in those waters!”

Then the new breeze kicked in, building quickly to 20 knots, and Whiskey Jack sailed VMG angles all the way to Subic. Simple. “On the fourth night, Saturday, the wind reached Force 8 with 4m closely-pitched waves (7 second period) and it became extremely hard work to keep the keel under the boat. However, by then we had a reef in the main, and the jib top set with the storm jib inside it. This double header rig was really good, and we just flew along. I think we won the race that last night, as we stayed well offshore in this massive wind, whereas it looked as if the other boats went closer inshore where there was less pressure. As a result we never experienced the infamous ‘Luzon Hole’, which was an infinite relief.”

Here is the actual track of the race, not a million miles away from the pre-race prediction. The olive-coloured route on the predition plot is really quite close to reality – sorry, hard to read. Peer closely.

“Despite having spent a princely sum on satellite communications, the newest and sexiest gear did not work, so we were blind the whole race. We had no data, and we received limited position and weather updates as the YB tracking system did not work as we were told it would. Not knowing where everyone may even have been a good thing, as it meant that we could effectively just get on and sail our own race, without all the worry about having gone the right way. Or not.”

In fact, Southward reported, “I had a Eureka moment during the race when studying the Expedition software routing – in short, it was telling us that in the latter half of the race we should sail at a true wind angle relative to the boat of 120 degrees, ie just go as fast as possible. So we did this, and let the wind take us where it took us. Fortunately, it took us straight to Subic!”

When dawn broke on the Sunday, Whiskey Jack had just 40 nm to the finish line. “There was a strange feeling that we were arriving on the Marie Celeste. Usually you see other boats as the fleet converges towards the finish, but we couldn’t see anyone at all. We were full of questions - had the others finished already? How could they have sailed so fast? Or were we indeed ahead of the pack?”

“And then, as we approached the finish line, we had an inkling that it was the latter. There were RIBs following us, with photographers and a film crew, and a drone - they don’t normally do this for us! But it was only when we arrived in the marina and were instructed to moor in front of the Subic Bay Yacht Club, in pride of place at the VIP parking area, that we realised we had actually won.”

The Whiskey Jack crew consisted of: Nick Southward (Owner and Skipper), Mick McCool, Robert Berkley, Peter Davies, Mark Lyons, Tom Carter

All the crew are amateur sailors with plenty of offshore racing experience, and an average age well into the 50s (helped by baby Tom who is still in his 30s). There were four boat owners in the crew, and more sea miles than can be counted with socks on. “It was a great team that I was fortunate enough to bring together, and they really delivered. No-one ever complained when I was asking them to put up more sail”, said Southward cheerfully.

Whiskey Jack is a 2008-build J/109 which has been lightened with a carbon rig, boom and wheel, that has served well for cruising Hong Kong waters with family and friends, while race competitively both inshore and offshore. “We have won most of the HK races over the years, including our division of the 2017 Vietnam Race, and then in 2016 I did the Rolex China Sea Race with my good friend Barry Hayes as a double handed entry – it blew like stink, and I think we still hold the double handed record for the fastest crossing. Our racing has got progressively better and better, and the boat has an excellent competitive racing record, as well as a reputation having fun along the way. This win, however, is clearly the highlight of my sailing career. Next up for me is the Rolex Fastnet Race this summer, where I am racing double handed on a friend's boat - ex Hong Kong and Whiskey Jack crew member.”

Lastly, a word of thanks to our sponsor, Admiralty Harbour, who are a boutique credit-focussed financial institution based in Hong Kong. Co-founder Alec Tracy is a keen sailor, a long-time crew member of Whiskey Jack, and a good friend. I am very grateful for his company's support.

Related Articles

13 boats so far for Rolex China Sea Race 2020
International entries from afar entered into the 30th edition Of the 13 boats currently entered into the 30th edition of Rolex China Sea Race, six international entries hail from as far afield as Russia, Philippines, Japan and the United States and mark the first sign ups for this biennial blue water classic. Posted on 12 Dec 2019
Rolex China Sea Race overall
Event wraps up under idyllic conditions in Subic Bay The 18 year old multihull record was broken by Karl Kwok's MOD 70 Beau Geste with top speeds of 37kts and her impressive elapsed time of 38h 30m 07s wiped 9h 31m 40s off the previous race record set in 2000. Posted on 1 Apr 2018
Rolex China Sea Race: Mandrake III wins overall
Half the fleet now finished, and half hit winds too light With half of the fleet finished and the other half of the fleet succumbing to light breeze off of Subic Bay, the Rolex China Sea Race leaders have been decided. Posted on 31 Mar 2018
MOD Beau Geste smashes multihull record
In the Rolex China Sea Race Karl Kwok's MOD Beau Geste crossed the finish line early this morning, 30 March, at 01h 50m 07s in Subic Bay, Philippines - smashing the 18 year old multihull record set by Benoit Lesaffre's Crowther 50 Catamaran, Atmosphere, by an incredible 9h 31m 40s. Posted on 30 Mar 2018
Rolex China Sea Race: And they're off!
Hong Kong's iconic skyline provided the perfect backdrop The start line, located in front of Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club's Kellett Island Clubhouse, was a bit hectic with most boats favouring the committee boat end of the line Posted on 28 Mar 2018
China Sea Race: Father and son Double-handed entry
30 entries have been received from eight territories, including double-handed entry With just under a month to go before the start of the 56th Anniversary of the Rolex China Sea Race, 30 entries have been received from eight territories, including one double-handed entry. Posted on 18 Mar 2018
First time entry Shanghai seeks crew
For Rolex China Sea Race The third Chinese entry in the 2018 Rolex China Sea Race has been received from Hanse 575, Shanghai. Posted on 19 Aug 2017
Famous Classic Yacht takes on Asia
Dorade set for the Rolex China Sea Race The 12th entry for 29th edition of the Rolex China Sea Race has been received from the famous classic yacht Dorade. The China Sea Race was established in 1962 with five yachts racing from Hong Kong to Corrigedor, Philippines. Posted on 11 Jun 2017
Rolex China Sea Race
Best Asian Regatta In less than a year, the Rolex China Sea Race will take a competitive fleet 565 nautical miles across the South China Sea to Subic Bay in the Philippines. Posted on 23 Apr 2017
Rolex China Sea Race entries are open
Starting in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour in March The 2016 Rolex China Sea Race will start on Wednesday 23 March at 13:20 hours (HKT) in Hong Kong's iconic Victoria Harbour and will finish 565-nm later in Subic Bay in the Philippines. Posted on 23 Oct 2015