“This is the sweetest victory by far,” Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards declared today after steering the silver-grey thoroughbred to a record eighth line honours victory in the Rolex Sydney Hobart “To rewrite a bit of sailing history doesn’t come along every day. To win a Hobart is a great honour but to win an eighth; I can’t believe I am here.”
“It’s been the hardest win,” owner Bob Oatley added. “Comanche is an exceptional yacht, probably the most expensive yacht ever built. A wonderful boat. When she took off at the start of the race I was amazed.”
“Comanche was unbelievably impressive down Sydney Harbour,” Richards said, “and the whole first night she had the legs on us. We thought, ‘how are we going to handle this thing’?
“It was definitely our toughest race. To have a boat so close for so much of the race, especially when she’s faster than you. I said to the guys ‘we’ve got to hang in there, hang tough, minimise our losses and wait for the first opportunity we get to attack’.”
The break came on Saturday morning in the middle of Bass Strait. Gone were the fresh conditions of the first day, ahead loomed a ridge of high pressure sweeping between the mainland and Tasmania; a wall of light air that would define the 2014 Rolex Sydney Hobart.
Get through the gate in time and there would be a light breeze, but a breeze nevertheless. Get caught on the wrong side and face a purgatory of calm. Wild Oats XI made the closing gate and, at last, found the lighter conditions that so suited her. She steadily pulled away from Comanche, opening up a 40 mile lead.
“It was a race to get through that gate from three days before the race,” when the Bureau of Meteorology warned the competing crews of the looming ridge at the pre-race briefing at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, said Wild Oats XI’s tactician Iain Murray. “Luckily for us, we just got through the gate. Comanche got there too, but they were slow out of it. We did really well to hang onto them in the rough stuff and still be side by side with her on Saturday morning, and then it was our turn.”
“It was a race to get past the ridge,” Richards agreed, ‘That was the whole thing. They actually slowed us down in the light weather. We went to leeward of them, but couldn’t get past, so we ended up taking a big pill, lost some ground to get to weather of them. But eventually it paid off, we got past them and away we went.”
The nine year-old slim Wild Oats XI, designed by Reichel/Pugh and built by McConaghy, is faster in light airs than the more powerful wider and heavier Comanche.
Oatley’s yacht was in her element in Bass Strait. But as the winds built up again this morning, the balance swung back in favour of the big American. As the pair raced down the Tasmanian coast she gradually reeled Oats back in. But with lighter air forecast in Storm Bay, Richards remained confident.
“It was inevitable that they would gain on us,” Richards said, “but we knew that once they got us they wouldn’t get past us. We finished in our perfect conditions.”
So is it official now? Is Wild Oats XI one of the greatest Sydney Hobart yachts of all time, alongside the likes of Solo, Astor, Kurrewa IV, Kialoa and Condor of Bermuda?
“Just look at the record,” Richards beamed, “she’ll go down as one of the legends of the race.”
Can she stay at the top? Every year there have been major innovations made to the boat to keep her competitive. Are there more modifications to the 10-year-old boat to come?
“She always needs something,” Bob Oatley laughs, “she is a very expensive girl to look after.”
“There’s not a lot left we can do to this boat other than to sail it well,” Iain Murray says. “It is a great all-round boat. Clearly it has an advantage over the newer boats in light winds and it’s up to us to sail the boat in stronger winds as best we can and minimise the damage.”
By Jim Gale, RSHYR media