Although there were only four entries, the SOLAS Big Boat Challenge entertained a vast spectator fleet on Sydney Harbour this afternoon. Especially when Wild Oats XI skipper, Mark Richards, refused to give way to Black Jack which was steaming through on starboard.
With Infotrack (last year's winner Perpetual Loyal) and LDV Comanche (the 2015 winner) electing to train solo rather than face their enemy on the harbour, the interstate battle was on between eight times Sydney Hobart winner Oats and the Queenslander Black Jack, which won the big race in 2009 as Alfa Romeo. The other two boats on the water were the RP66 Wild Oats X and Karl Kwok's Botin 80 Beu Geste.
From the start the Black Jack crew showed they meant business. All four boats hit the line at speed but Black Jack quickly put daylight between herself and Oats. It was not quite enough daylight, however, and when she tacked for the first time she wasn't able to cross ahead.
It was at the second cross that the closeness of the race and the seriousness of the crews was obvious for all to see. Black Jack tacked back on to starboard and was pointing towards the top mark at Manly. Oats was on port and it appeared she was not going to cross ahead. But Richards held his nerve and kept on coming. Black Jack tacked away and at the post-race press conference both skippers played down the seriousness of the incident.
“There was plenty of room,” Mark Richards said, with a grin that indicated there wasn't.
However, Black Jack sailing master Mark Bradford backed him up. “There was no drama there,” he said. “It might have looked closer from off the boats but there was no issue.”
Owner Peter Harburg aded, “There was never going to be a protest there.”
At the third tack, Black Jack again couldn't cross and threw a slam dunk at the silver boat. The timing was perfect and the Queenslanders were giving the New South Welsmen bad air.
That would be the last time that Oats seriously challenged, as Black Jack tacked to the top mark, unfurled her downwind sail and started to pull away.
The course took them up the harbour and around Shark Island, where Black Jack had extended her 20 second lead at the top mark to almost a minute. Oats clawed some time back on the second beat to Manly and was just four boat lengths behind at Shark Island for the second time.
On the final run to Fort Dennison, Oats furled the big downwind sail and tried to climb above the blue boat but to no avail. Black Jack gybed to the finish to end Oats' nine year winning streak in the Big Boat Challenge. The final margin was 43 seconds.
Beau Geste, which had stayed close to the 100 footers on the first beat, had lost contact but finished third, with Wild Oats X a good distance back in fourth. In IRC, Wild Oats X took the win with Beau Geste second and Black Jack third.
It was shame that the other super maxis and the huge fleet of TP52s that will contest the Sydney Hobart were not on the startline.
“Bad management” was the reason given by several CYCA members I spoke to, and it seems that all is not well within the club right now. Mark Richards agreed that the small fleet was disappointing, saying that the SOLUS Trusts do great work for everyone who goes affshore and for other boats “to not be supporting it is disappointing”.
Regardless, the spectator fleet had been entertained and the big boys had taken the chance the do some close-quarters jousting. They refused to be drawn on whether this race had any bearing on the Sydney Hobart, saying any of the four super maxis could take line honours, totally depending on the conditions that exist during the race.
Peter Harburg summarised the battle between Oats and Black Jack: “Every race we go into we like to win. But these are two very, very even boats and two very, very even crews. It all depends on how the dice comes down on the day.”
– Roger McMillan in Sydney