Line honours for Alfa
Neville Crichton looked remarkably relaxed and fresh as he steered his 100 foot supermaxi Alfa Romeo into Constitution Dock. It had been a long haul up the Derwent River, let alone all the way from Sydney, with the variable breeze on the River forcing two headsail changes in the last seven miles. At one stage they dropped down to two knots of boat speed as the breeze evaporated and for 15 minutes it looked as though the dreaded Derwent midnight doldrums were about to descend.
But the breeze picked up and the giant yacht powered up again to about 13 knots for the final lunge to the finish line, crossing at 10.02pm. “I’m glad Wild Oats XI wasn’t at our heels then,” Crichton joked dockside, alongside his seasoned crew of 22 Australian, New Zealand and British round the world and America’s Cup sailors.
In fact Alfa Romeo finished almost 20 nautical miles ahead of her rival, which finished at 12.11am.
Crichton was positively beaming as he thanked the large crowd that had gathered dockside to welcome him. "We didn’t expect to see anything like this crowd. We’re certainly honoured," he said. "I’d like to thank the 21 guys in my crew. We didn’t have any problems and I don’t think there was any time in the race when we were passed."
The win represents revenge for the New Zealand yachtsman. Four years ago these same, near identical Reichel Pugh-designed maxis staged a dramatic dual in the 2005 Rolex Sydney Hobart. That year it was Wild Oats XI’s turn, beating Alfa Romeo across the line by 49 minutes. Ironically, then it was first use of a wind shift off the NSW coast that gave Wild Oats XI her decisive break. This year it was Crichton’s turn to get the jump, again off the NSW coastline.
The scene was very different to four years ago when a despondent Crichton trailed Wild Oats XI across the line by just 49 minutes in her historic double line honours and handicap win. This year the Mark Richards-skippered Wild Oats XI still had 16 miles to go when Alfa Romeo crossed the line, with ICAP Leopard a further 24 miles astern.
So was revenge sweet? "Absolutely! Every win is a good win, but it’s taken four years to come back to do it, so it was even nicer. They were good competitors but at the end of the day we had the better team."
Crichton said that he was not surprised at the closeness of the race. At one stage earlier in the day Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats XI clawed back much of Alfa Romeo’s lead, to be within six miles of her.
"I always believed you could put a blanket over the two boats and that’s the way it was for the whole race. (The difference was) the 21 guys we have. We’ve got the best crew in the world."
Crichton described the race as very tactical. "There were occasions when we had to take a gamble and hope it paid off. We were very busy the whole race. There were occasions when there was a lot of breeze, and occasions when we drifted, so it made the race much more interesting.
"I don’t think there was any part of the race that counted any more or less. We all had periods we were parked up. I think it was the advantage of making the least amount of mistakes of anybody that won us the race."
Tom Addis, Alfa Romeo’s navigator, said that the hardest parts of the race were off Gabo Island Sunday morning, and getting through the big hole in the bottom half of Bass Strait last night.
"It was a park-up,” he said. "We were confident off Gabo, even though Wild Oats XI came up on us. It was painful, but you just have to be calm and get through it. The Derwent is hard too. You go into it unaware of what the future holds. You see a glassy patch and your heart falls, but you just have to get there and deal with whatever is there, whereas the rest of the race you can plan."
Helmsman Michael Coxon said that what made the race so taxing were the number of parking lots. "We averaged a 15 to 20 mile lead over Wild Oats XI but you can park up in the last 70 miles of the race and they can sail straight through you. That’s always in the back of your mind."
This is the 144th win Crichton has enjoyed at the helm of Alfa Romeo, but winning line honours this time has been especially sweet. Unfinished business has at last been done. "The Rolex Sydney Hobart is the ultimate," he declared, "and to win it is a good thing to have on your resume. We’ve done it twice."
Crichton’s victory brings to an end an extraordinary run of four straight line honours wins for Wild Oats XI, including a rare double line honours and handicap win, plus a new course record set in 2005. This is the second line honours victory for Crichton. He won in 2002 Rolex Sydney Hobart with a previous Alfa Romeo.
Despite the late hour, one of the biggest spectator fleets in years, accompanied Alfa Romeo up the final few miles of the 628 nautical mile course, while a sizeable crowd gathered along the foreshore to welcome the victorious crew.
Tonight’s win caps an extraordinary tally of 143 line honours wins worldwide for the 100 footer. This year it has set new records in the HSBC Premier Coastal Classic and the TransPac race.