No chance at a record in 70th Rolex Sydney Hobart

Sailors in this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart should watch what they eat on Christmas day or they may well watch Christmas dinner all over again on Boxing Day.

At the Christmas Eve briefing at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia this morning, the skippers of the 117 competing yachts were told the race will start in a 15 knot southerly, with 20 knots of breeze offshore. By Friday afternoon it will be blowing between 20 to 30 knots, and with a southerly wind pushing against a current from the north, the seas will be very choppy and uncomfortable, on a two to two and a half metre swell.

It all makes for a very uncomfortable day before the sailors have time to fully develop their sea-legs. Many crews will find managing sea-sickness as big a challenge as managing the boat.

Those 20 knot southerlies will persist over Friday night, though as the frontrunners get further south they will cross a ridge of pressure that will swing the wind from the south-east to the south-west and the breeze will be pretty light as they head across Bass Strait.

It will freshen up from the west in the afternoon in the Strait, boosting the frontrunners, while further north, the back half of the fleet will begin to revel in their first taste of a northerly.

On Saturday evening the wind in Bass Strait will be pretty light again, though it will be fresher from the west as the leaders approach Tasman Island.

The breeze will freshen up on Sunday, and the back half of the fleet will scoot across Bass Strait in a good overnight northerly, and really crack down the Tasmanian coast as the Bureau of Meteorology expects to issue a strong wind warning.

It is a real mixed bag of a forecast for the super maxis racing for line honours. They are such different styles of boat and the forecast doesn’t appear to overwhelmingly favour one design over another.

Anthony Bell though, the skipper of the wide powerful Perpetual Loyal, likes what he sees for that first day. “The first 15 hours are something we are probably really looking forward to,” he says, though all the skippers of the big boats concede that there will be times on Friday afternoon when they will have to slow their boats down.

“Going into a southerly on the first day is always a challenge, especially for the big boats,” says Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards. “We’re going twice the speed of the smaller boats in those conditions, so it’s a real challenge to keep the big boats in one piece. Our boat being 10 years old is a bit of an advantage for us, because we know the boat very well.”

Ken Read, the skipper of the untried Comanche agrees that the first day will be a big test for the brand new super maxi. “We’ll all try to keep our Christmas dinners down,” he jokes.

”It would almost be a bit of a shock if we didn’t get a southerly front in this race, so we’ll try to keep it in one piece, but this is an entirely untested boat and I am as curious as anybody about how she is going to react. We’re ready to go. There are only so many days of preparation you can do.”

This is not a wonderful forecast for the very wide American dubbed ‘the aircraft carrier’.  “You could just about fit twoWild Oats XI’s inside our hull,” Read says. “The design concepts were built for two very different reasons. 

Comanche is meant to reach across the oceans – to break Trans-Atlantic records – to take advantage of cracked-sheet conditions. Did we try to design something that would go upwind? Of course, but she’s s not designed specifically for this race.”

Yet while boat preservation may be the order of the day on the maxis, on day one Bell is inclined to press his advantage. “My tactician reckons the rich will get richer in this race.  The front is something we want to do really well at, and for us to do well in this race, we’ll probably have to chance our arm a little bit.”

The dark horses will be Rio 100 and Syd Fischer’s as yet pretty much unseen Ragamuffin 100Rio’s skipper Manouch Moshayedi likes the fact that without technical do-dads like canting keels, the lightweight Rio is a lot simple than her rivals. “There is less to go wrong,” he says. 

Syd, despite some hectic days repairing a major structural problem with Ragamuffin 100’s deck is, as always, keeping his cards close to his chest. I think Rags will hold together,” he offers, “she’s pretty slippery through the water.”

In a perverse sort of way, Wild Oats XI had a bit of luck on the weekend. A boom fitting broke. “It was a problem that has obviously been there for a quite a while. It’s one of those things you don’t see until it actually breaks, so we were fortunate that, in not a lot of wind, it broke on Saturday.” 

They are still fixing the problem, and the crew will have to interrupt Chrissie lunch for a test sail, but the fault could have so easily have revealed itself six days later than it did.

All the big boat skippers concede that this will not be a race-record year.

It will be a slow race, and the slower it is the happier Lindsay May, the renowned navigator on Love & War will be. He steered the veteran yacht to a win in the slow, long-bash-to windward 2006 race and he likes what he sees this year. With a good northerly expected, after the hot shots are already in port, he’s even put a couple of quid on the boat at the TAB, though he reckons he will have to watch out for Wild Rose, another veteran designed to the old IOR rule.

May wants conditions in Bass Strait to stay soft for the 50 and 60 footers, as well as the race leaders, so a lot depends on the timing of the wind transitions. There will almost certainly be a few holes off the Tasmanian coast as well. “If they have just a couple of hours when they are below their optimum rating figures, it really helps us slower boats,” he says.

“The soft patch on the second day – how long it lasts and how quickly it fills in could take the race from the 45 to the 50 footers,” says Wild Rose’s skipper, Roger Hickman. “If there is fast running down the Tasmanian coast it could be the 50s that win this race. They’ll run away from us.”

Ray Roberts owner of the Farr 55, OneSails Racing, agrees. “If we can crack sheets we can do comparatively well.” 

Things will change between now and Boxing Day. The initial front is coming through earlier than the Bureau had anticipated earlier this week, and the speed and strength of the westerly transition remains the sixty-four thousand dollar question. 

The forecast seems to have a little bit for everyone, tantalising the swift 40 footers like St George Midnight Rambler andChutzpah as well as the usual suspects, the 60 foot Ichi Ban, the TP52s and the Cookson 50, Victoire, last year’s winner.

“There’s another front coming in that could hurt the tailenders. I always worry about the timing on that,” says Victoire’s owner, Darryl Hodgkinson, “but for us, being a 50 footer, I’m reasonably pleased.

“I’ve not got a sad face. I’ve got a little smile,” Hodgkinson says. 

The start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will be broadcast live on the Seven Network throughout Australia and webcast live to a global audience on Yahoo!7.

A Parade of Sail will take place from 10.30am to 11.30am, before A fleet of 117 will set sail from three start lines in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race on December 26 at 1.00pm AEDT.

– Jim Gale, RSHYR media

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