4 January 2015

Screw Loose (Holland Half Tonner)

With the success of Wild Rose in the 2014 Sydney-Hobart race, and favourable conditions that led to the predominance of the smaller and mid-sized yachts in the corrected time results, it is perhaps timely to recall a much earlier edition of the race when lighter winds had also brought success to those yachts at the back of the fleet. Screw Loose, a production Holland-designed Half Tonner, just 30 feet long (21.7ft IOR), was the smallest yacht to ever win the Tattersall's Cup in the benign conditions that characterised the 1979 Sydney-Hobart race.
MASH leaves the Mundle factory at The Spit, Sydney (photo courtesy Michael Spies/Doug Sharpin)
Screw Loose had started life as MASH, a customised Holland Half Tonner built by Doug Sharpin (from the 'Golden 30' mould) for the 1977 Half Ton Cup. She was built in lightweight vinylester at Rob Mundles facility at The Spit in Sydney Harbour, and was given a taller rig than her production sisterships, with a double spreader spar supported by running backstays. The name MASH was an acronym of Mundle, Anderson (John Anderson, the 1972 Gold Medalist in the Star class and North Sails representative), Sharpin and Holland.

However, by the time of the the 1977 Cup series, held in Sydney, her design features of moderate to heavy displacement, masthead rig and narrow stern, that had been a successful combination in the 1976 Half Ton Cup, had been outclassed by the new fractional-rigged centreboarders in the 1977 series. MASH was well off the pace and finished a lowly 12th place overall (the Cup was won that year by Farr's Gunboat Rangiriri, while a Holland design Silver Shamrock III finished a close second). The boat was considered too light (relative to its designed displacement), and lacked stability and suffered upwind. Some improvements were achieved when the crew carried lots of drinking water in the bilge.
MASH is seen here at Rob Mundle's facility at The Spit, alongside a standard production Holland 30 (photo courtesy Michael Spies/Doug Sharpin)
Tasmanian sailor Bob Cumming bought MASH in late 1978, for just under $30,000, for local offshore racing (and re-named her Screw Loose), but was told by the Ocean Racing Club of Victoria (ORCV) that they would not accept its entry for the annual race across Bass Strait, as ORCV officials did not consider the yacht sufficiently seaworthy for the potential rigours of such a crossing. It is understood that the boat had suffered some gear failures in her early days, and the ORCV may have been aware of this. However, Cumming set out to prove them wrong, and strengthened the hull with additional ring frames and put in his entry for the 1979 Sydney-Hobart. Six weeks before the Sydney-Hobart, and after her entry had been accepted by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA), Screw Loose developed a serious leak in an overnight club race from Cumming's home club at Devonport (on the north coast of Tasmania). Although the yacht was the subject of a search and rescue operation, she managed to make it to port without outside assistance. 
Screw Loose charges downwind under spinnaker and blooper (photo courtesy Michael Spies/Doug Sharpin)
It is apparent that had the CYCA been aware of some parts of Screw Loose's history, she may never have been accepted as a starter in the Sydney-Hobart, particularly in the period soon after the 1979 Fastnet race disaster. The CYCA was unaware that Screw Loose was the former MASH, nor did they know of the rejection by the ORCV for its entry in the Bass Strait race, nor of the serious leak and subsequent seach and rescue alert during the Devonport club race.  A special committee did screen all entries, but somehow Screw Loose slipped under the radar, although one or two other entries were rejected. As it turned out, light conditions meant that Screw Loose or other yachts avoided any problems, but had there been a blow it could have been a different story (a similar type of oversight occurred with tragic consequences for the yacht Business Post Naiad in the stormy 1998 race).

But as journalist Peter Campbell reported at the time, none of that background should detract from the sailing skill and fine seamanship demonstrated by Cumming and his crew, who sailed Screw Loose brilliantly. They sailed the boat to the limit as the fleet came surfing southwards before a continuing nor'easter which gave them a spinnaker run for almost the entire race.
Screw Loose at the Sydney-Hobart race start (photo Histoiredeshalfs)
It had been the Frers-designed maxi Bumblebee IV that took line honours in the race (against a then record of 147 entries), and initially looked to have no chance on corrected time. But as thick fog continued on the Tasmanian east coast, and the fleet ran into lighter and lighter winds, her prospects for the line and handicap double began to improve dramatically. Bumblebee IV held her time against the bigger Admiral's Cup yachts, then the Two Tonners and One Tonners, until the Half Tonners began to sweep across Storm Bay and up the Derwent before a fresh sou' easter.

Cumming and his crew finished almost a day and a half after Bumblebee IV (in four days, 23 hours and 3 minutes), taking almost 109 hours to complete the journey, with an average speed of 5.76 knots, to claim her Sydney-Hobart victory. She scored a narrow four minute win over Sydney yacht Wheel Barrow, a Carter 30, followed by Tasmanian Half Tonner Apali taking third another six minutes later. In the cold morning hours and through to dawn the Half Tonners kept crossing the finish line and Bumblebee IV slipped further down the list on corrected time, finally finishing 15th overall. Half Tonners took out the first eight places, and 11 of the first 15 places. Such a sweep of the results by small yachts would not be repeated in later editions of the race, although the later Half Tonner Zeus II (Peter Joubert design owned by Jim Dunstans) won in 1981. Screw Loose was also the first Tasmanian yacht to win the race on corrected time since Westward won in 1948.

Screw Loose was later owned by Wayne Brighton in the mid to late 1980s and was the New South Wales Division 3 (displacement) JOG champion. The boat was then sold to Chris Walmsley in 1988, who also campaigned Screw Loose with some success in Papua New Guinea. She made the trip from Cairns to Port Moresby without mishap, but lost her mast during a coastal race in Moresby. The boat was hard running when the rig went over the bow. The rig was retrieved and repaired with an internal sleeve, and the crew were back racing in a couple of weeks.
Screw Loose circa 2010 (photo mysailing.com.au)
The distinguished history of Screw Loose had become a distant memory by 2010 by which time the Hobart champion had became a roost for resident sea birds in the Royal Papua Yacht Club Marina in Port Moresby, and appeared somewhat neglected. Fortunately, it was reported in 2011 that a new owner had decided to refurbish the yacht in Airlie Beach, and fit her out as a comfortable cruising sloop. It is not known if the refurbishment was completed.


This article has been compiled from a variety of sources including Peter Campbell's article 'Surprise victory for a Half Tonner', The World of Yachting 1980-81, Editions de Messine, Paris;  'Tiny Sloop Packs Mighty Wallop', The Age, 1 January 1980; Michael Spies and Doug Shaplin; and 'Screw Loose sails again in the Whitsundays', Ian Grant, mysailing.com.au (13 Sept 2010).

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