Malcolm Dickson’s triumph in the 2023 Solo Trans-Tasman Yacht Challenge was a long time coming.
The retired designer and boat builder spent the best part of five decades perfecting his craft, and more than 20 years finetuning his beloved Sarau for the treacherous 1240nm trek between New Zealand and Australia.
Last Wednesday, Sarau was the first to reach Southport, a little over 10 days after setting sail from New Plymouth. Only six boats made it to the Gold Coast, with Lucy TeMoananui (Nerissa K) and Alan Yardley (Melting Pot) abandoning the race in the first few days and Trevor Hill (Apriori) unable to make the start line.
“It’s very satisfying to have finally won it, especially in a boat I designed and built myself,” Dickson said.
“It was a lot of fun too, even the times which weren't so good. There was still enough good sailing and to get here in first place was a real thrill.”
Dickson led the race from start to finish with no competitor getting to within 30nm of him – though for most of the race, the 76-year-old from Opua in the Bay of Islands had no idea he was in front.
“I lost my [satellite] phone connection about halfway across the Tasman, so I had no information coming in about the weather or where the other boats were,” he said.
“I knew I was headed toward a big calm patch, and I wasn't sure how to get around it. I ended up sailing into it for two days and I lost some of my lead.
“It was very frustrating because, for much of the race, I was just sort of guessing, really, and pushing as hard as I could. I only realised I was still leading when I was about 12nm out [from Southport].”
A partial loss of communication wasn’t the only setback Dickson had to overcome – he also lost his working jib on the second day.
“You always encounter issues on board but even though this race was much tougher than the last one [in 2018] it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.”
Dickson had undertaken the Solo Trans-Tasman twice before - his first on the self-built keel boat Spindrift in 1978 and the second 40 years later.
“After the first one, I had always intended to do it again, but with building a business and having a family life just got in the way,” Dickson said about his four-decade hiatus between races.
Dickson and his wife Joan sold the business, Dickson Marine in Nelson, in 2000 to pursue a lifelong dream of sailing around the world aboard Sarau.
In 2018 Dickson tackled his second Trans-Tasman, this time aboard Sarau – a race he lost to his son Hamish.
Dickson’s daughter Linda, a former Olympic 470 sailor, convinced him to enter this year’s race and – with the lessons from 2018 still relatively fresh – it was time to give Sarau a makeover.
“Sarau is a little bit bigger than the other boats as we lived on board for 19 years and sailed around the world with it – but in January I started unloading to make her lighter,” Dickson said.
“In 2018 conditions were quite light and because Sarau has always been a liveaboard, she was a bit sticky in anything under 10kn.”
Dickson made a “hitlist of about two pages” of items Sarau could do without – including a dinghy, outboard, diesel heaters, carpets, saloon table, washing machine, radar scanner and 120 meters of chain.
“I managed to take her from 18 tonnes down to 15 – three tonnes lighter than she’s ever been,” he said.
“I didn’t realise just how much of a difference it made because I didn’t really have a chance to try her out until the race but it absolutely transformed her performance.”
Dickson won the 2023 Trans-Tasman by more than 90nm, with the battle for second a much closer affair – eventually going to Jim O’Keeffe (Hullabaloo), followed by Mark Hipgrave (Mister Lucky) and Mike Carter (Allegresse).
Sarau will soon set sail from Southport back to the Bay of Islands – with Dickson joined by Hamish and 16-year-old granddaughter Ruby.
While he’s not ruling out another tilt at the four-yearly competition – officially the second oldest continuously run single-handed ocean race in the world - Dickson suspects time may finally be catching up with him.
“I’ll be pushing 80 with the next one and though I’m still pretty fit and active I have to accept that, at some point, I won't be,” he said.
“I’ve now done nine crossings of the Tasman, five of them on my own. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that you don’t take it on lightly - the Tasman can and does throw up anything.”