Wild Oats scores first bragging rights in lead up to Sydney-Hobart

Despite all the pe-race hype about the new 100ft super-maxi Comanche, it was the 10-year-old defending champion Wild Oats XI which won bragging rights in the SOLAS Big Boat Race on Sydney Harbour.

Abandoning his usual position at the pin end of the line, Wild Oats' skipper Mark Richards found clear air in the centre and was fastest away when the gun went at 12.30pm. At the boat end, Comanche and Perpetual Loyal locked horns, with Loyal getting her nose in front.

The best action came shortly after the first mark off Clarke Island, when Oats, which had gone inshore, had a problem hoisting their downwind sail which allowed the pursuers to overtake. Recovering quickly, Richards pushed Loyal into irons from the leeward position, a manoevre that had Loyal strategist, Tom Slingsby, scratching his head afterwards. This fight between the Australians let the big red and black American through briefly, but Oats would soon restore her lead and would not relinquish it.

The big three at times split to opposite sides of the harbour, but always when they came back together the order was the same – Oats by a small margin from Comanche with Loyal starting to drop off the pace.

The first time round Fort Dennison, off the Opera House, Oats had a two boat length lead over Comanche with Loyal about five lengths further back. Ichi Ban was the best of the rest, followed by the Volvo 70 Black Jack.

With the light wind blowing from the south east, there was little chance for Comanche to show her reputed downwind abilities and the tight reach down the harbour saw Oats extend. It wasn't until halfway up the harbour for the second time that the Code Zeros were deployed, but there was no real change in relative boat speed. Oats still seemed comfortable in the lead, with Comanche keeping her in sight.

Weighed down with celebrities to aid their admirable childrens' charity, Loyal messed up a hoist of their massive A2 sail. Owner/skipper Anthony Bell commented afterwards that in hindsight they should have dropped it on the deck, but they persisted and eventually got it up but by that stage Black Jack had passed them and the two leaders were gone.

When Wild Oats came alongside the media boat, which was flat-out at 20 knots, she glided past and vanished up the harbour. On board, tactician Iain Murray could be seen discussing the course with Mark Richards, indicating with hand signals where he thought the best wind could be found.

By this stage the only interest was how fast these sleek machines could sail, as the race was done and dusted. Oats crossed the line at the Opera House 1 minute 22 seconds in front of Comanche, with daylight third. Black Jack managed to hold off Perpetual Loyal.

As a pointer to the Sydney-Hobart, the race didn't live up to its billing. Comanche didn't get the wind strengths or angles of sail she is supposed to excel in and there was little hard-on-the-wind sailing by which to judge relative windward performance. 

However, as a spectacle it was superb and has probably heightened interest in the big race.

Mark Richards said he was extremely happy with the performance of the boat and crew but served a warning about the Americans. “I was really impressed with Comanche, they weren't far behind” he said. “The conditions probably suited us, not them. It's going to be a fight on Boxing Day.”

Ken Read, as he always does, entertained the crowd at the media centre. However there was a serious side to his message, that choosing the Notorious Sydney-Hobart for their first race is a risk.

“Do we know if it's going to stay in one piece in the Hobart Conditions?” he asked rhetorically. “No. We picked the worst race possible to test the boat and we're trying to make up for potential problems with good people. I don't know how many Volvos we've all done, but it's plenty.”

Read is President of North Sails and Comanche is a test-bed for the new 3Di RAW sails which are much lighter than traditional sails.

“We peeled away some layers that are there for durability. The weight saving is about 15% and when a sail weighs a couple of hundred kilos, that's a lot of weight off the deck, not to mention aloft. We didn't take away any strength, just durability and it will be interesting to see how long they last.”

Echoing America's Cup designer Ben Lexcen, he jokingly suggested that if the sails fall apart as they cross the finish line in Hobart, they will have it “about right”.

Under IRC, Matt Allen's Ichi Ban took the honours from Paul Clitheroe's Balance and Rupert Henry's FOMO. Rob Hanna's Shogun had to retire after a bingle with You're Hired at Fort Dennison, when they broke the bobstay and pole. This is the subject of a protest.

Full results are available here.

– Roger McMillan, editor.

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