Black Jack leads Sydney Hobart fleet out of the Heads

Conditions were perfect on Sydney Harbour for the start of the 2019 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race at 1pm on Boxing Day. A moderate 12-15 knot north-easter greeted the 85 starters under clear blue skies. High tide was at noon, giving the big boats plenty of water under their deep keels and creating a small chop as the wind and tide were working against each other.

As always, a massive spectator fleet lined the race course and every vantage point on the surrounding hills was full.

Three start lines were in use, with the five supermaxis on the front rank, along with the other big boats. The mid-sized, mainly TP52s and bigger production yachts, made up the second line, while the smaller boats, including this year's midget, Gun Runner, were on the third rank.

The weather forecast was for a very benign Hobart, with light to moderate tail winds forecast for the first three days. All navigators were suggesting that the “transitions” between weather systems would be the challenge, with large wind holes likely to appear and disappear without warning.

At the 10 minute gun, most of the big boats were still forward of the line, but they gradually retreated back up the harbour and began to manoeuvre for position.

After a poor start last year, which indirectly led to the port-starboard incident that cost them a one hour penalty and therefore line honours and the race record, Wild Oats XI was keen to get away well.

Unusually, skipper Mark Richards set up up mid-line instead of at the pin end and the tactic worked, with the big silver boat in clear air. Infotrack was closest to the pin end, with Comanche and Scallywag pinning her to the side of the harbour before she was forced to tack away.

Black Jack started at the boat end and lifted perfectly, forcing Wild Oats to tack. Mark Richards called to his crew that they were slow, and asked for his trimmers to “do something”.

The wind was oscillating between NE and NNE, and dropped in places to around 8 knots, catching a few of the skippers out.

Black Jack tacked on a lift and began to give Wild Oats bad air.

At the Manly turning mark, the Queenslanders on Black Jack held the advantage over near sister ship Wild Oats, which had sailed straight into a hole and all but stopped. The crew managed to get her going and called Infotrack on port, but Infotrack snuck around the mark in second place. Scallywag was fourth and there was a cheer for Winning Appliances, the 60 footer formerly called Ichi Ban, which beat Comanche out of the Heads. Alive was also sitting on Comanche and looking good early.

As the smaller boats completed their passage down the harbour, most of them engaged in their own private battles with a boat or boats of similar size and handicap, the maxis stretched their legs and extended away. The wind was dying inside the Heads, giving the big boats an early advantage on handicap as well as line honours.

It had taken nearly 20 minutes to leave the harbour, a slow start by recent standards, and the challenge for navigators was now whether to head out to sea in search of the East Australian Current and potentially stronger winds, or sail a shorter course, close to the coast.

Finally Comanche started to hit her straps and haul back the others. Black Jack stayed in close while Comanche headed to sea, and after 45 minutes had drawn level with the Queenslanders. As the supermaxis left Sydney behind them at around 20 knots, the final boat in the fleet was just clearing the harbour.

After three hours of racing it was obvious that, at this very early stage of the race, conditions have suited IRC Division 1 and Division 0 best. Defending champion Ichi Ban (the 52 footer owned by Matt Allen from NSW) was leading on corrected time, followed by another Division 1 yacht, Ron Hanley's Privateer (USA). Then came Comanche (IRC 0) and six more IRC 1 yachts.

Tony Kirby's Patrice (NSW) was the first of the IRC 2 boats, in 13th place overall. The first of the IRC 3 yachts, were Greg Prescott's 2 Unlimited (TAS) in 32nd and Anthony Kirke's Enterprise, from WA, in 33rd, while IRC 4 did not feature until 38th place, which was held by Blake Boulton's Trumpcard (QLD).

Unfortunately, despite the relataively benign conditions, there were two early retirements. The supermaxi Scallywag broke her bow sprit while Gordon Ketelby's TP52 Zen suffered rig damage.

To check on progress, go to the Sydney Hobart tracker or the race standings.

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