Trying to keep the Christmas turkey down
The Rolex Sydney Hobart set sail today at 1300 local time with a stiff beat out of Sydney harbour, with, as usual, the course perimeter thick with spectator craft and thousands watching from the shore.
All of the 88 strong fleet made it to the start line. Earlier this morning, this had looking marginal as four Melbourne-based crews had been affected by last night’s severe storm as they attempted to fly up to Sydney for today’s start. Some didn’t make it while others did, but without their foulweather gear.
“There were huge thunder storms, 120km/h winds, trees down, 25mm diameter hailstones,” recounted Robert Date, skipper of one of the affected boats, the Reichel Pugh 52 Scarlet Runner. “We hope we don’t get that tonight, although I think we might.”
In addition to Scarlet Runner, Michael Hiatt’s Farr 55 Living Doll, Jason Van Der Slot’s TP52 Calm and Bruce Taylor’s Chutzpah were all affected, the latter two including crew stranded who were coming up for their important 25th Hobart races.
Taylor was madly running around this morning, trying to organise food, wet weather and equipment for his yacht that have not arrived, stuck with crew at Melbourne's Tullamarine airport. The Victorian, who is setting off on his 31st race south, with his son Drew sailing his 20th, is still hopeful that his missing crew will arrive in time to start the famous race.
“Gavin Gourley, one of my 25er’s is still to fly in, we’re keeping our fingers crossed both guys will make it. If not, I will sail the boat with the eight I have,” said Taylor. “I’ve got someone chasing food – it’s hard to find a supermarket open at this hour (6.40am Boxing Day morning) and we’re short wet weather and thermal gear and other stuff. I feel lucky to be here, I think I was on the last plane in last night, we touched down just before 11.00pm.”
Leading the charge out of Sydney Harbour after the start gun was the mighty 100 footer Wild Oats XI, with Anthony Bell’s Investec Loyal hanging on to her coat tails. In fact the start had not gone as smoothly as planned for Bob Oatley’s serial line honours winner. During pre-start manoeuvres the drive unit for the main sheet winch had frozen up and for the start they had to transfer the main sheet to the spare primary winch as crewmen Jon Hildebrand and Ian Smith scrabbled down below to effect a repair.
After a short upwind to the Heads, the exit to Sydney Harbour, so the boats rounded the final turning mark and hoisted their spinnakers in a 18 knot northerly wind. The seaway immediately offshore was particularly substantial, with boats disappearing up to their first spreaders in the troughs, the sea kicked up due to the remnants of tropical cyclone Fina.
While this afternoon the fleet is enjoying a fast run south down the coast, with Wild Oats XI making a solid 18 knots under A2 genniker, a typical Rolex Sydney Hobart southerly is due to kick in tonight further down the New South Wales coast as a trough moves east across the Tasman Sea.
At this morning's briefing, Rob Webb, Regional Director of the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology, admitted to competitors that tonight’s southerlies would have much more punch than forecast previously. “At this stage we are saying 20-25 knots, but on the front edge it will be pretty gusty with a 30 knot average and gusts up to 40 knots.”
Or as Mike Broughton, navigator on Chris Bull’s Jazz, warned: “There were some huge hailstones, the size of tennis balls that rained down on Melbourne last night - that is coming our way. We might not get tennis balls, but we might get peas. And it is going to be bumpy, because of the East Australia Current, which is going to be taking us south at 2 knots and we also have a wave train from the tropical cyclone off Brisbane. So quite windy and with the confused seas, it is going to be a busy first night.”
However on a scale of one to ten in terms of severity, Broughton predicts the weather in this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart will only score a four. “The first night will be quite busy, but after that it gets quite benign and it is going to be a real fight in the light winds to the east of Tasmania and I think that will be when the race will be won or lost.”
Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards said that tonight’s conditions would “sort a bit of the fleet out”, but afterwards it would turn into a tactically very challenging race. “It is probably more of a traditional forecast than anything. It is still going to be very light down the south coast of Tassie, but even in 4-5 knots of breeze, big boats like ours are still doing 13-15 knots. It all depends on the wind angle, but it is looking a bit faster today which is good. With a forecast like this it would be easy to park up and Loyal and those guys could put a few miles on you, so it [line honours] is by no means a given.”
Skipper of Loki, Stephen Ainsworth, agreed that this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart was going to be a difficult race. “It is all fairly clear until you get to the south side of Bass Strait and then anything could happen. It is an easy place to get into trouble and suffer bad luck by being becalmed down the coast of Tasmania and even in the Derwent River and Storm Bay. Many a race winner has gone from being a rooster to a feather duster in a very short space of time there. So the handicap contest looks like it will be very tricky indeed.”
Loki has a new larger mainsail for this race and in addition they have a new weather specialist on board in the form of British navigator Will Best. “I think he’ll pay for himself in this race in particular,” said Ainsworth.
With Loki having won the Australian IRC Championship, the Audi Sydney Gold Coast Race and Audi Hamilton Island Race Week they are certainly on a roll at present. “It has been a fabulous 12-18 months and I just hope that our luck hasn’t all run out now. This is the only race that I would dearly love to win, which I haven’t yet won,” concluded Ainsworth.
While docktalk murmurs this morning were starting to favour Wild Oats XI for a second handicap win, the prospect for a park-up off the east coast of Tasmania is weighing on the minds of big boat crews and it is possible that this year’s race could favour the small boats if the weather turns favourable towards the end of the week. At present this looks unlikely though with the high currently to the west of Tasmania forecast to ease east on Thursday/Friday. Nonetheless Andrew Saies, who claimed the Tattersall’s Cup for the Rolex Sydney Hobart handicap win in 2009 was liking the forecast for his Beneteau First 40, Two True, particularly tonight’s southerly. “My boat is quite competitive upwind in 15-20 knots - it really hits the straps in those conditions. Then they fade out after 24 hours and we are back into a very mixed light air pattern, potentially in different directions and that really mixes the race up and brings us back into touch with the big boats, so we really like that.”
Saies and his crew from Adelaide race Two True extensively around the east coast of Australia, however since 2009 when their boat was the only First 40 in the race, this time there are three others to contend with, plus one Archambault 40. “I guess we have the advantage that we’ve shaken the bugs out of the boat in an ocean race.”
Given tonight's bone shaker of a ride south, one wonders how many scalps it will have claimed by tomorrow morning.
Photos by Daniel Forster and Kurt Arrigo/Rolex