Just a few days out from Boxing Day and the buzz around the docks of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia is that Ray Roberts is looking like a very good bet to win this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart. He has come back to the race after a break, bringing with him a proven boat, the Farr 55 Onesails Racing, the former Living Doll, which finished second overall in 2011 under Michael Hiatt.
Roberts has optimised the boat, especially its sail wardrobe, and loaded her up with a crack crew that includes renowned Hobart campaigners such as Michael Spies and Steve McConaghy. They are out racing and practicing whenever they can and it all seems to be gelling at the right time.
“Having only had the boat for three months, it’s been a challenge,” ‘Hollywood’, as he is known, admits. “You have to get it fully prepared and then you can work on speed. We have new upwind sails, and it’s only in the last week that it has come together.
“Every boat is different. You have to take a very analytical approach, keep meticulous records of how it performs in different conditions, sail and rig settings, and you need time to bring the crew together. You always need more time, but I am confident we’re getting closer.”
The Workforce International head chose the Farr 55 with the Rolex Sydney Hobart in mind. “To do well in a Hobart you need something around 50 feet long. It helps you to keep pushing on in extreme conditions when the smaller 40 foot boats will start to drop off.
“I like two rudders. They were developed in the Volvo races and they create less underwater drag because they can be smaller than one rudder. And you must have a good all round boat. In the majority of races you find it is about 50 percent upwind and 50 percent downwind.”
That is what sets the Rolex Sydney Hobart apart from many of the world’s other great ocean races. It is a very complex tactical and strategic race. “You have to keep getting the boat in the right place for the next change in the weather. And the current is very important. It can add 2 knots to your speed. Boats have lost races because they weren’t in the current.
“We keep constant satellite monitoring of the current and then we overlay that with the weather forecasts. You have to line up all the ducks or you could be leading the race only to become becalmed at Tasman Island.”
While sailing is an intensely physical sport, it is easy to see that the intellectual chess-like side of the race has great appeal to Roberts. “You must never lose sight of your overall strategy,” he says. It’s so easy to get sucked into a one-on-one race against another boat you just don’t want to be beaten by, and the rest of the race just slips away from you. You have to get all the elements right, and then you need luck.
“The unique thing about the Hobart is that as you go south, the weather gets worse. You get a combination of strong and cold winds, and the crew are getting tired. Crew fitness is crucial.
“I remember the days when you’d spend two hours in the bar before you went racing, but sailing’s changed. I have my crew out training on bikes, getting fit, and I have a strict policy about how much alcohol they can drink over Christmas – and an 11 o’clock evening curfew in the week before the race,” Roberts says. “You have to be serious about how you want to sail the race. I enjoy sailing and the social element, but when I am on the water I’m serious.”
So who are the biggest threats?
“TP52s sail very well for their rating,” Roberts says thoughtfully. “Balance, Frantic and Cougar II; they will be tough.”
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.
By Jim Gale, RSHYR media