Wild Oats leads the charge
The Mark Richards-skippered 100ft supermaxi Wild Oats XI shrugged off a cheeky challenge from Grant Wharington’s Melbourne-based 98 footer Wild Thing to stamp its mark early on the Rolex Sydney Hobart line honours battle.
Despite forecasts that this will be one of the toughest Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Races in years, the 87 strong fleet started in remarkably mild conditions on a flat Sydney Harbour at 1300 today in an 11 knot WNWerly breeze.
Both start lines reported clean starts as nearly 1000 competitors began the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s Aussie yachting classic under overcast skies in a light wind that produced a colourful spinnaker procession out of the Harbour before the fleet turned at the seaward mark to point south towards Hobart.
On the eastern side of the front start line, reserved for the largest boats, Grant Wharington staged a nail-biting and brilliant start with just seconds to spare at the helm of Wild Thing. The 100 footers - Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats XI and Sean Langman and Anthony Bell’s Investec Loyal squared off on the western side, while Stephen Ainsworth’s Loki timed things perfectly about a third of the way down the tightly congested line.
As Wild Oats XI and Investec Loyal sprinted down the western harbour shore, Wild Thing steamed along the eastern shore in better pressure past Vaucluse and Watsons Bay.
Wild Oats XI won the sprint to the sea mark, 13 minutes 48 seconds into the race despite trailing her jib briefly in the water as she changed to her light Code Zero sail minutes after the start. Once she turned seaward, Wild Oats’ Code Zero made way for a giant spinnaker as the four-time line honours winner gybed to find the shortest route to the seaward mark.
Two boat lengths behind Wild Oats XI, Wild Thing and Investec Loyal converged on the harbour mark, Wild Thing squeezing her rival out to slip inside.
Investec Loyal immediately headed towards South Head and Wild Thing held her course toward the north, looking for the pressure advantage they needed to have any chance of mowing down the leader in these flat conditions.
The gamble didn’t paid off for Wharington, who also had an incident with a media boat just inside South Head, and by the time Wild Oats XI was at the sea mark, the point at which the impressive fleet converged and gave chase and turned the sea into boiling whitewater, the thoroughbred had opened a handy break on her line honours rivals.
The last boat to leisurely leave Sydney Harbour was the Italian entry Onelife, one of two entries in the Cruising Division.
Sometime this evening the fleet will encounter a southerly change of 15 to 20 knots accompanied by scattered thunderstorms.
This morning, with Sydney experiencing rainfall, the Bureau of Meteorology’s Michael Logan left Rolex Sydney Hobart competitors wondering just what the weather situation would be for this year's 628 nautical mile race. He said a narrow cloud band over NSW with thunderstorms in it is filling in from the west and sliding gradually northeast: “Even it if shifts, there will still be cloud cover, rain and storms between short bursts of sun,” he stressed. “The uncertainty is thunderstorms and gusts, which could change the outlook.”
Race entrants were told they can expect the first of the southerly busters around 6.00-7.00pm around Wollongong on the NSW south coast this evening, which could infringe into Sydney, with a strong wind warning attached.
"I don’t know if it will be a true southerly, it may be a southwesterly, but the fleet (87 yachts) can expect 20-30 knots. Monday winds will surge up the NSW coast and by 5.00pm there will be a strong southerly for up to 12 hours,” Logan warned.
A new system is expected through on Tuesday 5.00am, when it is expected winds will lighten off again, with sea breezes up and down the coast.
A third change is expected on Wednesday, bringing 20-25 knot westerlies to Tasmania. Logan said bands of storms look likely to be on the cards, but said “the situation would be re-capped closer to the time.”
It’s a far from easy situation for skippers, navigators and tacticians, as there are no certainties in the forecast.
However, navigator of 21 races to Hobart, Richard Grimes, remained positive, which is a bonus for his skipper, Nick Bartels, who owns the Cookson 50 Terra Firma from Melbourne. Grimes had firm ideas of what to do to win the Rolex Sydney Hobart this year and the rain at the CYCA this morning was like water off a duck’s back for the veteran yachtsman and pilot, who says he subscribes to the farmers’ theory that “rain before 7.00 (am) means it’s clear by 11.00 (am).”
According to Grimes, because strong rainfall has filled dams over the last couple of weeks, the cold water overflow is pushing the east coast current offshore. “It will be more of a wind game plan, especially early on. The trick is to not screw up on the first night, or you’re gone,” he says. “You need to look for any current and the south-westerly. Once you’re in the sou’wester, you want to foot (sail off the breeze) for Hobart; you don’t want to sail hard on the wind. The third part of the race is the approach and timing to the Tasmanian coast. If you can get all those things right, then you’re in with a chance."
Grimes will work with tactician/helmsman Barney Walker to get it right. “Between us we’ll figure it out,” Walker said.