First blood to Vatti
The 34-miles of the Simpson Passage Race kept competitors working hard until the very finish, on day one of the China Cup. After the skippers’ briefing at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club last night, the competitors in the 91 teams expected today would bring moderate to strong winds during today’s race from Hong Kong to Shenzhen in mainland China. And while those winds did materialise, the race had a strange and unexpected sting in its tail.
Frank Pong’s 75-footer Jelik was fast out of the blocks in the IRC division start, tearing away from the smaller boats in her fleet and making good ground on the Beneteau 40.7 fleet that had already started. The wind was gusting up to 18 knots although there were big shifts and holes in the breeze, and a large swell that saw the boats slamming into waves on port tack.
By the time Jelik had negotiated the long beat and negotiated the final major headland to turn to the finish, the next boats were almost out of sight. However the lead boat was confronted by a wall of zero wind, and with the large swell and the backwash off the cliffs, Pong’s boat wallowed helplessly as the fleet closed in from behind. Eventually Jelik found a sniff of new breeze as a raincloud arrived, enabling Pong to drift across the line in first place, but with little idea of how the opposition was faring.
The battle at the front of the Beneteau 40.7 fleet was fierce, with some of the lead boats tacking aggressively on each other. The three leading boats passed the final headland and aimed on a reach towards the expected finish area, but when the race committee announced a new set of coordinates for the finish line it was Vatti that was first to respond. Peter Burling, Olympic silver medallist and Vatti’s tactician, gave credit to navigator Ed Smyth for spotting the course change after hearing it over the VHF radio. “Ed called it first, and it was the call that got us back into the lead,” he said.
With stealth the Kiwi team prepared the spinnaker and only when it was ready for a quick hoist did helmsman Simon Cooke steer away onto a run towards the new coordinates. By the time the leader, Gery Trenteseaux’s Team Courrier, could respond, it was too late, and the Kiwi-crewed boat crossed 30 seconds ahead of the French, with Robin Hawthorn’s Team Vicsail and Rick Pointon’s Beijing Sailing Center less than a minute further back, after more than five hours of hard racing. Smyth commented: “You’ve always got to stay awake to unexpected changes on races like this, you’ve got to be ready for whenever it comes your way.”
Jamie McWilliam would agree, particularly where the Simpson Passage Race is concerned. “I’ve done this race a few times and it’s always challenging, and for different reasons every time,” said the skipper of Ker 40 Peninsula Signal 8. “This race was another one like that, but we stayed out to sea like we had planned to, and it worked for us.” Indeed it did, with McWilliam’s crew avoiding the worst of the light airs drift towards the finish, and beating Jelik by very nearly an hour on corrected time, with Gerry Daughton’s Dubois 40 Outrageous in third.
Light airs returned to the windless final few miles of the course but only for a brief time, and while some boats finished in around five or six hours, others failed to make it through the finish before the wind shut down again, giving them an early evening drift into the harbour. In IRC 2 Shawn Kang’s Beneteau 50 Lighthorse won, but with other positions still to be determined.
At the Opening Ceremony and Prizegiving at the Sheraton Hotel this evening, Vatti’s skipper Jono Rankine was awarded an Azimuth watch for winning the first race of the Beneteau 40.7 regatta, although Rankine said the real battle would start tomorrow. He might be right. With winds of Force 5 to 7 forecast, and with three windward/leeward races scheduled, day two will present a challenge of a very different kind, with the foredeck crews steeling themselves for a busy and exhausting day as they wrestle their boats around the course.