To win the Grand Prix IRC Division at Audi Hamilton Island Race Week is to know you've beaten the best offshore racing yachts in Australasia. However, this year there is added determination to take top honours for the crew of one particular yacht, Bob Oatley's 66-footer, Wild Oats X.
The reason is that Oatley has decided to go for a history-making fifth consecutive line honours in this year's Rolex Sydney Hobart race with his 30.5 metre (100ft), all-conquering supermaxi, Wild Oats XI, and Audi Hamilton Island Race Week provides the first significant step towards that goal for his skipper, Mark Richards, and the nucleus of the supermaxi's crew.
It was decided some time back to enter the smaller Wild Oats X for Race Week and go for the top spot on the podium, but winning the Grand Prix division has suddenly become a lot more important because there will now be an unprecedented fleet of six supermaxis lining up for line honours in the Hobart race in December.
That means Wild Oats XI's chance of establishing an amazing ocean racing record in the Hobart classic – one that might never be broken in the history of the sport – has been made a lot more difficult because of the high calibre of the competition.
So, as part of the plan to make Wild Oats XI faster for the Hobart race, Oatley and Richards have decided to reduce the number of crew from 24 to 17, and the majority of that 17 will be aboard Wild Oats X for Race Week. The one key member of the team who won't be there, but will be in training very soon, is Kiwi Mike ‘Moose' Sanderson, the highly talented winning skipper from the 2005/06 VOR round the world race.
One of the primary reasons for the smaller crew number for the Hobart race is to help reduce the total racing weight of Wild Oats XI, simply because less weight means greater speed. Similarly, to give the supermaxi's little sister every chance of winning at Race Week, she too has seen the some weight-saving surgery carried out, including the fitting of powered primary winches.
“To win at Race Week is a high honour and we are going there with the intention of winning,” said Richards, “but at the same time the standard of competition and pressure we will face there will be an invaluable part of our preparation for the Hobart race.”
Wild Oats X will face four other similar sized yachts in the race for the ‘Gun Boat' line honours trophy at Hamilton Island: near sistership Black Jack (Peter Harburg, Qld), Loki (Stephen Ainsworth, NSW), Wild Joe (Steven David, NSW) and Limit (Alan Brierty, NSW). And of the 20 yachts currently entered for the IRC Grand Prix Division at least 10 are capable of winning on corrected time, making it the most keenly contested IRC series seen in Australia in many years.
One of the five other supermaxis that Wild Oats XI will line up against in the Hobart race, Peter Millard's Lahana (formerly the kiwi supermaxi Zana), will also use Audi Hamilton Island Race Week as part of its preparation program. The four other big boats going for line honours in December are Leopard (Mike Slade) out of the UK, Kiwi Neville Crichton's Alfa Romeo fresh from a record-breaking Transpac campaign, Wild Thing (Grant Wharington, Vic), and Maximus, which has been chartered from its Kiwi owner by Sydney yachtsman Sean Langman.
The fleet for Audi Hamilton Island Race Week 2009 now stands at 165, with more than half entered for the cruising divisions. It's likely around 190 yachts will be under sail when the first round of racing gets underway on August 22.
Many of the yachts heading north to Hamilton Island will be contesting the 384 nautical mile Audi Sydney-Gold Coast race which starts next Saturday, July 25. This is also the penultimate stage of the Audi Australian IRC Championship, the final round of which will be decided at Race Week.
Audi Hamilton Island Race Week is Australia's most awarded keelboat regatta.
All information regarding the 26th Hamilton Island Race Week can be found on the website: www.hamiltonislandraceweek.com.au