Onya, Lindsay: Meet the first sailor to compete in 50 Sydney to Hobarts

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On Boxing Day 1973 Lindsay May stepped aboard Onya of Gosford to compete in his first Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. A bright-eyed 24-year-old, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

Fifty years on, he is still bright-eyed and eager as he approaches his 50th race where he will sail with Antipodes. May will be the first person to reach the milestone.

“In ’73, my first race, I never thought I’d get to 50, and I had no idea what I was in for. I’d done very little racing, it was my first [race] really offshore,” May said.

“It’s just one of those things, you get on and if you do a good job, people to say to you ‘do you want to come along next year?’, and that’s just what’s happened year after year.”

In the 49 races he has done so far, the 74-year-old has seen it all. He won the race three times, first in 1984 with Indian Pacific, again in 1991 with Atara, and most recently in 2006 with Love and War.

He was part of the 1998 race, the deadliest in the events’ history, when six people died, five yachts sank and just 44 of 115 yachts finished the race. May, aboard Brindabella, was one of them.

Antipodes navigator Lindsay May will be competing in his 50th Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race on Boxing Day.Credit: Louise Kennerley

But among the victories and the disasters, the one that stands out is 1993.

“The most memorable race was 1993 for me, we rescued a man who had been in the water for five hours. We didn’t get to Hobart that year,” he said.

“We’d lost our mast, we had been hit by a huge wave … found out there was a man overboard 22 miles out to the northeast, and so we went out.”

The man overboard was John Quinn, whose safety harness snapped when his boat MEM was knocked sideways, throwing him overboard.

Lindsay May is Antipodes navigator for the 2023 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.Credit: Louise Kennerley

“He went over, he was in the water, and it was rough terrible conditions, and they [his crew] couldn’t get back to him, they just couldn’t find him,” May said.

Against all odds, Quinn survived, picked up in the lights of an Ampol tanker almost five-and-a-half hours after he entered the water. May and the Atara crew recovered Quinn from the water. “It was a miracle,” May said.

This year aboard Antipodes, May is the navigator – the most experienced crew member onboard followed by the boat’s sailing master Bradshaw Kellett who will be doing his 31st consecutive race.

“I never set out to do 50 consecutively, it’s just happened, and I look back, and I’m shocked at how fast it’s happened. It’s scary,” May said. The only interruption to his Christmas schedule since 1973 came in 2020, when the event was cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

But the race takes its toll, and with number 50 still ahead of him, May is unsure if he’ll get to 51.

“As the years have rolled on, it’s taken me longer to recover,” he said. “I find I’m more tired as the years go by.”

May planned to sail to England this year but suffered an injury and only got as far as Panama.

“I dislocated my shoulder, I fell down a hatch,” he said. “I call it a one-man demolition derby.”

And as far as the future, is he planning to compete in 2024? “People ask me about 51, and I’d like to think 51, but I’ve got to have a boat to sail on,” he said.

“I’ve just got to wait and see what happens.”

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