Cat makes history in Sydney to Hobart yacht race

When Oli queues up on the starting line for the Sydney to Hobart yacht race on Tuesday, he’ll be making history.

That’s because Oli is a cat.

Since the event began as a casual cruise down the east coast of Australia in 1945, it has attracted all manner of colourful competitors – from media magnate Rupert Murdoch to Australian cricket legend Michael Clarke and former UK Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath.

But there’s no record of any feline seafarers in the gruelling regatta. Carrier pigeons – sure: they were once used to send messages back to shore and have graced many a deck during the ocean classic. But cats? No.

Oli’s owner Bob Williams says the pair didn’t set out to be pioneers. The moggy is simply part of the furniture on Sylph VI and leaving him behind on the boat’s jaunt south was out of the question.

“I’ve done lots of crazy things, but this isn’t one of them,” Mr Williams told the BBC ahead of the race.

Organisers – while initially bemused – are also on board.

There are no race rules prohibiting animals, and cats have a long history in maritime travel, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia pointed out.

“One of the great things about the Rolex Sydney Hobart is all the wonderful characters in the race and the diversity of boats,” Commodore Arthur Lane said.

While most eyes will be on the speedy super maxis – giant yachts with up to 24 crew – during the Boxing Day race, Sylph, a 12m (40ft) yacht made in 1960, will set off in the two-handed division where smaller boats compete with a slimmed down team.

“We’re jokingly saying [it’s] the two-handed and four-pawed division,” Mr Williams said.

A friend of his is co-skippering, he explains, and as for Oli: “He’s SC – ship’s cat.”

While Sylph is an old hat – having taken part in six Sydney to Hobarts many decades ago – this is Mr William’s first time racing it.

But both he and Oli have plenty of experience at sea.

A retired navy officer, Mr Williams has spent his life traversing the ocean – including a recent single-handed circumnavigation of the globe – much of it with a feline companion by his side.

Oli, who is about 10 years old, joined him five years ago and quickly earned his sea legs.

“He used to get seasick, and he was a bit stressed to start off with… but now he’s fine. He quite enjoys life,” Mr Williams said.

The laidback kitty can usually be found meowing orders or napping on the job in the boat’s cockpit.

“He’s very sensible… Whenever it gets rough, he’ll disappear down below to find a nice, safe spot to curl up.”

Yachts sail during the 2021 Sydney to Hobart
Image caption,Each year, the race is followed by fans all over the globe

And get rough it just might. The 630 nautical mile (1,166km) dash has long been characterised by unpredictable and often brutal conditions – the worst, 25 years ago.

Competitors in the 1998 race were battered by a monster storm, which sank five boats and claimed the lives of six sailors.

This year forecasters have warned that the fleet could be in for thunderstorms, strong winds, and even hail along parts of the course.

Mr Williams jokes that he hasn’t lost a cat at sea yet.

But turning serious, he stresses that he is prepared for any emergency.

“The cat overboard routine is just to have something like a towel or a thick rope handy so that they can climb back on board.”

There’s no life jacket for Oli though, because he simply wouldn’t wear it: “They’re Houdinis… they’ll escape from anything they don’t like,” Mr Williams says.

But although cats hate the water, he knows for a fact Oli can swim, because he once legged it into the ocean to avoid an overzealous dog.

Sylph and her occupants will be playing it safe though and proceeding towards Hobart at a comparatively leisurely pace.

The record for the fastest finish set in 2017- is one day and nine hours. But that was a massive, modern super yacht built for speed.

“Sylph is an older slower boat… Our ambition is to get to Hobart in time for the New Year’s celebration.”

There they’ll mark the occasion with a nip of rum, and perhaps some milk on the rocks for Oli.

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