Alfa Romeo wins SOLAS Big Boat Challenge

Take 20 yachts ranging in length from 50 to 100ft long. Put them in close proximity on Sydney Harbour. Fire a gun. The result is controlled chaos and mayhem.

At the pre-race briefing, principal race officer Denis Thompson had warned skippers to be careful on the start line. “With canting keeled yachts standing more upright than others, if the breeze comes in as expected we could have masts through mainsails and no-one wants damage this close to the big race,” he warned.

Perhaps heeding this advice, several of the big names started conservatively, with Neville Crichton steering Alfa Romeo through the centre and Mark Richards choosing the pin end for Wild Oats XI. However, it was still an awesome sight as 20 yachts set off on starboard tack, heading for the rocks on the northern shore.

There were soon cries for room to tack as the boats on the left-hand side were pinned against the shoreline by the boats above them. Abuse was shouted but somehow everyone tacked away from the shallows in one piece. Wild Oats XI had lifted ahead of the pack, while Alfa had burst through the middle and tacked away to the safer left hand side of the course.

They met near the Sow and Pigs with Oats on port and Alfa with right of way. Oats threw a perfect tack and slam dunked Alfa, which tacked away. This was the way they would stay for most of the race, with the lead alternating but Oats tending to have the speed advantage up wind.

With the big two safely round the top mark at Junction Bell, more chaos was about to unleash. The 66ft Wild Oats X, skippered by Iain Murray, was showing no respect for her 100ft rivals and was third to round, just ahead of Sean Langman's Investec Loyal (previously Maximus). Peter Millard's 98ft Lahana (the old Konica Minolta) was fourth after a questionable approach on port that had Stephen Ainsworth and his crew on Loki expressing their feelings. Yendys, Yuu Zoo, Black Jack and Limit followed in very quick succession.

Going downhill to Point Piper the fleet spread more widely and while there would still be some close quarters battles and some questions about the rules, the immediate danger of collision was averted.

With a few exceptions, such as when Yuu Zoo had problems with her kite drop allowing two boats through, the order had become established. Wild Oats XI was leading Alfa Romeo by fewer than two boats lengths, Wild Oats X was sailing brilliantly but some distance back in third, while Lahana, Yuu Zoo, Black Jack, Limit and Loki were in a bunch a further 20 to 30 boat lengths behind.

The race for line honours wasn't decided until the final leg. As Wild Oats XI rounded the top mark and popped her kite for the run to the finish near the Harbour Bridge, a momentary lapse in concentration caused the foredeck's worst nightmare – a tight wine glass in the spinnaker that proved impossible to remove. Had this been the Sydney-Hobart, the error might not have cost them much – they would have eased away and either dropped the sail or managed to unwind. In a race of this length and at the speed with which these boats move, any error costs the race.

So it was that Alfa Romeo used superior speed to overtake and head straight for the finish. Wild Oats XI followed close behind and nothing has been resolved for the big race to Hobart. In an expensive day for the Oatley family, Wild Oats X shredded a kite in the exact spot that her big sister had had her problem, but she had enough margin to hold out Loyal, Lahana and a very fast-finishing Black Jack.

Last year's Rolex Sydney Hobart handicap winner, Quest, showed she will again be a force to be reckoned with in the big race, taking handicap honours.

Staged as a fundraiser for the SOLAS Trust which raises money to advance the cause of safety at sea, and as pre-publicity for the Rolex Sydney Hobart race, the event was a huge success but does require one improvement for next year – more control of spectator craft. Alfa Romeo in particular had a nasty moment when they turned at Point Piper for the second time and found themselves right in the middle of a moving bunch of power boats.

The day raised more than $10,000 for the SOLAS Trust and provided mainstream news media with images that will help promote interest in the Rolex Sydney Hobart start on Boxing Day. I can't wait for that one!

By Roger McMillan, who reported the race from on board Lahana.

Jeanneau JY60
Race Yachts
Jeanneau JY55
M.O.S.S Australia