To understand why, try to imagine you are on the deck of a 70 foot racing yacht sailing somewhere below South America. Out here there is nothing but sea and steel blue sky; and your hands and feet feel the cold. This boat is big and heavy, the spinnaker alone weighs 300kg and takes up to eight of you to handle; this boat is a highly loaded piece of precision engineering, it is designed to go fast, in fact you are travelling at 20 knots. You look around and realise you are on the crest of a wave, it appears to be the size of a large hill, at least 200 metres across its crest. You look into the ocean and see a Fin Whale, for the next five minutes it swims alongside then, with no show of exertion; it accelerates and leaves you in its wake. This is another day at the office for the off-shore sailor.
Tom Addis, who these days calls Lake Macquarie home, is a full time professional sailor who has raced off-shore since 2004. He has participated in three Volvo round the world races and eight Sydney to Hobart races (winning six times and twice breaking the race record), as well as numerous other races around the world. In a busy year Tom is away from home for 230 days of the year, “there’s always racing going on in the world, most of my work is overseas, mostly in America and Europe… it’s all about managing your calendar.”
Tom is a specialist Navigator. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the job of the Navigator was to understand the current location of their boat and how fast the boat is travelling. Tom likes to think about the sea skills these navigators used; “it involved dead reckoning, compass headings, correcting for currents; if you had clear sky’s you could get the sextant out and take sun sights to find where you were, that was plus or minus 5 miles… it involved a lot of skill, time and technique. Nowadays knowing where you are is simple, these days the job of the Navigator is all about positioning the boat to take advantage of the weather and currents.”
These days a boat’s location is continuously available, as are detailed forecasts of weather and tides. The job of the navigator is to interpret this mass of data, and to observe how these mathematical models interact with the real world around them. Unlike in-shore racing, the navigator has a critical role to play. Tom says “we live in a world with more computing power, races are won and lost on much smaller details – tacking now rather than five minutes time to get this side of the cloud – understanding why that clouds there and what that means the breeze is doing.”
Tom grew up sailing boats on Sydney Harbour. Both of his parent’s came from sailing families, his father owned a Puffin Pacer, not the fastest of boats – Tom soon owned his own Flying 11. He understands why sailing is often a family pursuit; without the encouragement of a parent or family member, many people give up after one of the inevitable set-backs sailors will experience. When something goes wrong out on the water, there is no one else to help.
Despite his enjoyment of sailing, when he reached 15 Tom decided to focus on his studies, and went to the University of New South Wales to study Mechanical Engineering. He qualified with Class 1 honours but he soon realised a desk wasn’t for him, and began to work toward a professional career in sailing. “I was working as an engineer and decided I needed a bit of a career change… I’m not a very good political player and I really enjoy the way natural systems work, so I took myself back to Uni.” This meant studying mathematics and climatology. After three years Tom graduated with a Master’s in computational mathematics, with a focus on atmospheric weather modelling.
Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when there was money to be made from a fast passage, skippers would look out for storms and clouds, as these would indicate a strong sailing wind. It’s easy to see Tom as a modern day cloud chaser, “there’s a categorisation for clouds; cumulus clouds with flat bottoms, air cooling as it rises, vaporises when it reaches a certain temperature, a sign of circulation which can drive a sea breeze; certain clouds show convergence lines, which can be good to sail in and you may need to be on a particular side… the wind is moving 5, 10, 15 degrees constantly. When you’re racing these are the things you’re interested in. Most people don’t understand the wind moves in three dimensions, not two. I’m keen on treating every situation on its merits, sailing is a sport with so many variables, and not many people understand it. I’m always scared of giving myself rules, which goes back to my technical nature – every bit of wind or soft patch is there for a reason, the key is to understand why it is there, I really enjoy that.”
It wasn’t until the age of 25 that Tom returned to sailing, this time in Moths, and he travelled the country sailing. His first international job was on Team NZ in the America’s Cup. That year Team NZ won the challenger series but lost the Louis Vuitton trophy to the Spanish team by five races to two. “Back then it was very different to America’s Cup now, with version 5 boats, heavy monohulls, and a large crew of 18 people. It was all about trying to predict the first shift. If you could predict which way the breeze would go you could win the race.” Tom says the team had “various computers generating forecasts, we had three weather boats out on the course looking for cloud and weather patterns and I developed gadgets which used various inputs and mathematical models to try and learn patterns in the breeze… these races were won or lost on tiny little details… every summer for years before the race you’d be on weather boats collecting information… all grist for the mill… data for your neural networks and modelling.”
Tom says that “for me personally as a sailor, off-shore is where I am most comfortable.” In 2008 he raced in his first ‘Volvo’ round-the-world race. “I got an offer to jump on the boat; I joined them in India… I enjoy the longer races, you get into a rhythm, bits break and you’ve got to fix them and you have to eat and drink and I really enjoy that.” In his second leg the boat broke a forestay. Tom says “a seventy foot boat sounds big but your actual living space is the size of a small kitchen.” While the crew kept the boat stable, they couldn’t hoist jibs and were reduced to 4 or 5 knots rather than 10 or 12 knots. It took 42 days to finish that leg, which was “too long for everyone.”
Among the highlights, Tom talks about an American boat called Rose Bud, “a 65 footer, the first American boat to win race since ’75, and then Alfa Romeo in 2009, sister ship to Wild Oats… I was involved with Wild Oats for a couple of wins.” But the highlight must be Perpetual Loyal in 2016. “We finished the race in just over a day and beat the previous race record by almost five hours – in Wild Oats we only beat it by 15 minutes; that boat goes well in specific conditions with very minimal time of upwind, we got a lot of it in this race, a lot of reaches, we had a full day of reaching and the boats behind were also good reaching boats, it’s a record that could stand for a while.” Owner Anthony Bell only decided to enter Perpetual Loyal in the September before the race. It had sustained serious damage in the previous two Hobart races and Tom says “it was a sad sight laid up in Newcastle Harbour.” Bell managed to assemble a very experienced crew, which was one reason Tom was keen to join. After the race Bell said of Tom “our navigator did an awesome job. He picked everything.”
This is the sort of praise Tom enjoys. He says of himself; “I’m very self-contained, I get internal satisfaction, I know if I’ve done a good job, I can be happy to finish forth if I’ve done a good job. The team works nice, I’ve started to enjoy more and more, I’m a very introverted person. I’ve been lucky to have high quality jobs and high quality wins.”
Tom is keen for his kids to learn sailing. He believes sailing teaches you to be responsible for yourself “you’re on a floating object in the middle of the ocean. You’ve got to sort it out. That’s why I want my kids to sail, not to win races or anything like that – it’s just being able to cope with a bit of adversity and come up with a solution yourself – ego’s got no place, that’s why I enjoy working with the weather, all that stuff is stripped out, it’s basic principles. The people are simple wholesome principled people -that’s how I see it anyway.”
When it comes to elite professional sportsman, Tom Addis is not your typical ‘rock star’. Introverted by nature, he does not live for the winner’s podium, but finds satisfaction in doing his job well and working with good people. He appreciates living on the water at Lake Macquarie and says “it’s incredibly special to be on the lake, I’m at my happiest when I’m on the lake on my own in my dingy.”