Forecast gets the thumbs up

As Rolex Sydney Hobart competitors attend their pre-race met briefing

Thursday December 24th 2009, Author: Lisa Ratcliff, Location: United Kingdom
This morning the Bureau of Meteorology’s Rob Webb delivered his Christmas news to those taking part in the 65th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, a mixed bag of weather, which will give every boat in the 100-strong fleet opportunities to make their mark.

The news was so well received that even talk of impending rain for the Boxing Day race start at 1.00pm did not dampen the enthusiasm of those at the weather briefing held at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) this morning.

The rain will not distract the big boat crews from the job ahead, the mixed winds still leaving windows of opportunities to not only win the race on line, but to also take overall honours. Yachts such as main favourites, Wild Oats XI (Bob Oatley) from NSW and main rival Alfa Romeo.

While spectators may be eyeing the big boats, traditionally the 628 nautical mile race is about the overall handicap win, the Tattersall’s Cup. Webb told assembled yacht owners, navigators and tacticians at this morning’s briefing that different weather systems are likely to thread their way through the fleet each day; conditions that give an equal chance to all competitors.

Will Oxley, the navigator on Geoff Ross’ RP 55 Yendys (NSW), agrees. “If the big boats get to the Derwent before the southerly, then they’ll be likely to win (on handicap). The forecast has got something for everyone though.

“There’s plenty of 50-60ft weather in that forecast for an overall win,” said Oxley referring to the grand prix boats in the 50 to 60 feet range, those yachts that have been touted as those most likely to win the Tattersall’s Cup.

Last year’s overall winner, Bob Steel, who also won the race in 2002 with a previous Quest, was more conservative in his estimations: “Based on the weather, it could be a big boat race on handicap, but I’m hoping that the Derwent will be as fickle as she’s renowned for so that some of the smaller boats are in with a chance.”

Competitors can expect a 15-20 southerly for the race start, courtesy of a low pressure system on Friday evening that is set to continue into Saturday in Sydney waters.

This prediction means a collection of spinnakers, a spectator’s dream come true, as the fleet leaves Sydney Harbour.

Once the yachts have cleared Sydney Heads, turned right and are heading south to Hobart, spinnakers will be dropped and the race will start in earnest as crews head to windward, sitting on the rail with the spray hitting their faces.

As Neville Crichton said after today’s briefing: “The real race starts when we get out of the Heads.”

Webb said a trough will develop and hang offshore, then follow the fleet south, with a north-easterly sea breeze trying to develop on Sunday morning. This is where the largest of the 100-strong fleet will have the opportunity to do some serious damage, by taking the opportunity to make up some big miles in downwind conditions.

Tacticians and navigators will have to be quick to get into the next system because by Sunday evening the trough is expected to produce south to south-westerly winds of 15-20 knots offshore in the Bass Strait region, while inshore the breeze is expected to be light and fickle.

The low will continue moving south on Sunday and Monday, bringing south-westerly winds, with the possibility of gale-force westerlies (34-47 knots average and greater).

“The 28th of December is where the tacticians and navigators come into play – make or break time,” Oxley, a respected international yachtsman said.

Oxley went on to say: “The first day will be all about boat speed. On the 27th it will be all about boat handling skills and the 28th, during the course of the day, is where the race will be won or lost.”

Webb said sailors could expect a weak north-easterly current with minimal effect on the fleet.

Mark Richards, skipper of the now 100ft (she was 98ft until later this year) race record holder Wild Oats XI, which is aiming for an unprecedented fifth line honours victory, said: “It’s going to be a very tricky race, but we will try to get there first.

While main rival Neville Crichton said: “I predict we’ll finish the race in just under two days. It will be incredibly close racing. The right sail choice and position on course will be imperative. ICAP Leopard (the UK 100 footer owned by Mike Slade) and Wild Oats XI will be our closest competitors.”

Elusive as ever on whether Wild Oats XI could win the race for a fifth consecutive time, Richards responded: “We’ve had to fight for each win. Ocean racing is a tough sport and Mother Nature always plays a key role in our performance.”

Matt Allen, Commodore of the CYCA which organises the Rolex Sydney Hobart each year, was quick with his response on which yacht would take line honours: “I’d have my money on Wild Oats XI or Alfa Romeo,” he said.

The Commodore also delivered a timely warning: “Spectators should please keep their distance from competing yachts by at least 100 metres, particularly given the incredible speeds yachts can achieve under spinnaker.”

Asked if he was concerned sharing the front start line with so many other big boats and if his would be the first yacht tied up in Constitution Dock in Hobart, Neville Crichton responded: “I just want to get out of the Heads in one piece and make it to Hobart the same way.”

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