THE cutter Rani once found everlasting fame by putting Lake Macquarie on the map in yachting circles.
Despite the odds, the "little boat that could" spectacularly took out the inaugural Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 75 years ago, battling monster seas and a mighty gale blowing for four days.
Rani won not only line honours but was also first on handicap, a rare feat in what's since become one of the world's greatest sporting challenges.
At 35 feet (10.7metres) long, the yacht was the second smallest yacht in the then tiny fleet of eight yachts who completed the gruelling 628-nautical mile course. At one stage Rani was even reported missing, so her survival and then going on to win the future blue water classic seemed miraculous.
Although she would only compete in this one prestigious, long ocean race, Rani seemed indestructible. What follows then is a largely forgotten tale, fairly topical maybe considering the recent huge, wild seas on our coast.
Turn the clock back now to January 1959. After a refit and a new owner, the sturdy yacht Rani was at the centre of a real mystery with the vessel washed up on Mungo (Nine Mile) Beach. The hull, lying on its side between high and low water, was pounded by heavy seas for three days.
The Rani had been holed on jagged underseas rocks off the beach. The mast was snapped but with one sail rigged. Marine experts said the boat's engine and most fittings would be recoverable, but the hull was beyond repair.
But where was her four-man crew? There was absolutely no trace of them. A Dakota aircraft from Williamtown and 30 fishing vessels, including trawlers, from Port Stephens searched for survivors but found none. Police inspected the wreck of the once famous yacht and concluded that most of the damage had been caused by the heavy surf.
Anyway, Rani's rudder was lashed and the mainsail had been furled. Ship gear was strewn along the beach sand, but the yacht's fibreglass lifeboat and some food were unaccounted for and only three lifebelts were missing. Were the four crew sheltering somewhere?
Here, boat author Rob Mundle takes up the tale in an extract from his recent best-selling book about the origins of the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race.
Mundle wrote that while on a fishing trip north from Sydney a storm blew up and Rani's owner and skipper Harry Quinn decided to anchor off deserted, wind-swept Broughton Island for everyone to go ashore to spend the night in an old fisherman's hut.
As Mundle wrote: "Unfortunately Rani dragged its anchor overnight and was wrecked on a (nearby) beach ... an aerial search eventually spotted the four (crew) on Broughton Island, but conditions were so severe they had to wait another four days before they could be rescued by boat."
To flesh out the incident, you have to delve into old newspapers. The hero of the day turned out to be police sergeant Duncan McLeod, aged 43, and the skipper of the police rescue launch, Ansett. Described in reports as a "sea-going Sherlock Holmes", he soon led the combined air-sea hunt to the four stranded and anxious yacht survivors.
From local fishermen, Sgt McLeod deducted that the holed and abandoned 6000 pound ($12,000) yacht had very likely drifted, unmanned "like a lobster pot" north to Mungo Beach.
"It was elementary," Sgt McLeod said. And so it was after he backtracked.
Skipper owner Harry Quinn, much relieved at being rescued, said after Rani had disappeared, they soon spied her stranded on Mungo Beach. So near, yet so far.
"Last night we heard a plane circling and lit every bramble and piece of rubbish we could find, even small trees, but we failed to attract attention," Quinn said.
The Rani was a complete write-off and offered at auction.
Prolific Lake Macquarie boat-builder Les Steel, of Speers Point, had built the "double-ender" Rani back in 1936. What he thought of Rani's total loss in 1959 is unknown, but it seems likely he probably thought she was indestructible if she'd been racing at sea instead. It was no idle boast. After all, Steel soon went on to build two more Sydney to Hobart race winners.
New Kokoda battle insights
THE fierce fighting on the narrow and treacherous Kokoda Track in the New Guinea jungles of World War II is a legendary tale of Anzac courage. But after more than 70 years, is there really more to tell, more to reveal?
In short, the answer is "yes" with the publication of The Battles for Kokoda Plateau by Canberra-based military historian David W Cameron. In this new, riveting read for history buffs, Cameron draws back the curtain of time to share new insights into the Battle for Port Moresby.
Using diaries, letters and first-hand accounts (from both sides) he probes deeply into the critical three-week battle by a small Australian militia force, the 39th Battalion, to hold back an enemy tide of Japanese troops intent on capturing the Kokoda airstrip. Outnumbered at least three to one, the Aussie fighters, desperately short of ammunition and food and stranded in fetid swamps and dense jungles, held gamely onto the northern foot of the Owen Stanley ranges in late July and early August 1942.
Cameron reveals in his compelling saga of the conflict that came before the Kokoda campaign, including letters of two female missionaries written as they spent four weeks escaping the invading Japanese. The author also documents the Papuan troops fighting side-by-side with the Australians and not merely being carriers of urgently needed supplies in some of the most appalling terrain on earth.
As battles raged, two fleeing missionary groups were joined by lost Australian soldiers and downed American airmen all trapped behind Japanese lines and trying to break through to the besieged Aussies. Tragedy and betrayal followed. Ironically, the Japanese may have had no ultimate intention of invading the Australian continent, but were keen to occupy our northern neighbour of New Guinea to help isolate Australia and New Zealand from the United States. It's a powerful story, intensely researched and dense with detail (including maps), but persevere. The sacrifices of the soldiers involved should never be forgotten.
The Battles for Kokoda Plateauis published by Allen & Unwin.