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An interview with Graham Biehl on racing doublehanded in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race

by David Schmidt 19 Dec 2023 16:00 GMT December 26, 2023
Tumbleweed in action ahead of the 2023 Sydney Hobart Race © Images Graham Biehl Collection/Bow Caddy Media

If you're a fan of American Olympic sailing, Graham Biehl's name is a familiar one. Biehl, a native of San Diego, represented the USA, along with teammate Stu McNay, in the Men's 470 class at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics. When it comes to making boats go fast, the man knows what he's doing.

A stint running race programs followed, before Biehl and his wife, Hannah, relocated to her native Australia in 2019.

Once down Under, Biehl wasted little time getting involved with high-level racing.

Case-in-point, he's teamed up with his father-in-law, Nigel Nattrass, an 11-time race veteran, a winner of a Sydney to Rio race in the 1970s, and former top Etchells sailor. The two plan to race "two-handed" (in race parlance) aboard Biehl's Sunfast 3300 Tumbleweed in this year's Sydney Hobart Race.

This will be Biehl's first Sydney Hobart, and it will be both sailor's first times racing to Hobart with just one other soul aboard.

I checked in with Biehl, via email, to learn more.

Most North American readers are likely familiar with your Olympic sailing—can you please tell us a bit about your offshore endeavors?

After spending so many years on the Olympic circuit, it left very little time to explore anything outside that world.

My offshore experience was limited to some coastal sailing around Southern California, and that's about it—until I started sailing with Nige.

When did you and Nigel decide to do the race? Also, what inspired this decision, and, specifically, the TH class?

In late 2020 Nigel was wanting to get a family cruising yacht to spend time on, but that conversation shifted to racing.

We discussed getting a 50-footer but during [Covid] lockdowns [and] the pandemic, and with two-handed becoming really popular in Europe, our discussion moved toward two-handed just to make the process of going sailing easier.

The saying goes that most offshore races are won and lost before the boats leave the dock. Can you please walk us through your preparations?

The preparations really are crucial. Not only do you have your sails, equipment, instruments, etc., but also the requirements to make it to the start.

A lot has changed in the qualifications and experience department since Nigel last did a Sydney to Hobart, and for me it was starting at zero.

It's really been a two-year process to get us here starting with the personal qualifications and miles at sea including Safety at Sea seminars, Long Range (HF) radio operators courses, and the annual offshore sailing series.

On top of all of that there were some additional sail choices we made once we got our heads around the performance of the boat across the conditions.

How tough is it to get a boat ready for a race like this? What have been the hard bits?

There is a lot of time (and some money) invested into this race and ultimately the program. With only the two of us there are a lot of job lists and responsibilities we need to share to make sure the boat is ready to go, even for the shorter races.

What has been most challenging for us is not really knowing everything that might be common information in the offshore world. For example, we had a pretty comprehensive B&G racing system installed on the boat, but then we needed to modify that to add internet access, add redundant navigation, and a more accurate compass.

I would say the most difficult part of our journey so far was trying to master top-down furling with our A-sails.

Initially we had an A2/A4 combo with top-down furling. In certain conditions it was a breeze and made everything so easy. However, we had a few nightmare scenarios in which we couldn't furl/unfurl, and after horrendously knotting the A4 around the forestay, we decided to bite the bullet and commit to outside jibing the spinnaker. Man, I wish we would have done that sooner. It would have saved us a few arguments on the boat.

Have you guys been sailing the boat a ton? Any notable adventures?

The first year we had the boat we sailed it a lot —at least two-to-three days per week. Sometimes it was [a] no-spinnaker race in the harbor with friends, other times it was just us working out boathandling, systems, etc.

That time was crucial as I wasn't working then and it has remained the base of our training.

More recently we've had a few more work and family commitments, which means more of a racing focus, and a few other outings.

Just recently we've had a few adventures!

The Gold Coast Race we did toward the end of July (although light) was a really fun few days up the coast with tons of sea life. On the sail home we saw some mid-20s with decent seas and were holding mid-teens boatspeed for long periods of time and occasionally [seeing] over 20, in the middle of the night. We had a few wipeouts and ultimately decided it was better for the boat and our sleep schedule to drop the kite since it was just a delivery sail home.

Also, during the Cabbage Tree Island race just over a week ago we got to watch an enormous thunderstorm light up the sky to our south for a few hours which was pretty cool, once we realized the storm wasn't a threat to us.

Have you been doing any sleep-deprivation work or anything else to get used to operating on a drained body battery?

Does having a young child count for sleep-deprivation training?

Joking aside, we've had a lot of discussions around this and have spoken with other experienced two-handed sailors.

There are a few different strategies, and the one we're starting to favor involves looking at the sailing you are doing now vs what you expect in the future and adjust sleep schedules to suit. For example, if it's relatively easy sailing, grab your sleep and food while you can so you are ready when you need to be up.

Looking ahead at the race and the course, what parts or chapters (e.g., the start and clearing the Heads, Bass Strait, nailing the approach to Tasman Island, et al) are you most excited about?

We're certainly excited about the start, especially because [the TH class] gets our own starting line. Most of the racing we do during the year we're right on the line with the 100-footers and every other boat out there. Being one of the smaller boats in the fleet, we get pushed out the back pretty quick and we aren't left with very many lanes trying to get out the Heads.

For the Hobart start, we're already put in the back on our own line, which will be refreshing.

Apart from that, clearing Bass Straight will be the big challenge, and we're excited to tackle that challenge.

Is there anything else about your lead up to the race that you'd like to add, for the record?

Diving into the [boat's] polars, sail charts, and learning the navigation side of things on the laptop has been really refreshing. This is information we never really had in dinghies and Olympic sailing, and I've really enjoyed learning that aspect of the sport.

Also, high-quality offshore gear and a proper sleeping bag cannot be under estimated!

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