Saturday, 27 December 2008

Rolex Sydney Hobart Race 2008: Fast and Hard

Full on! Chutzpah, with owner/skipper Bruce Taylor. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

by Giles Pearman

The latest weather forecasts suggest the 64th Rolex Sydney Hobart will be a quick one. Fresh to strong, 20-30 knot northeast following winds for the first two days from the 26 December start will push the 100-boat fleet south at high speed under spinnaker. The predicted west-southwest change of 25-30 knots to follow will allow straight-line reaching courses towards Tasman Island, the last turning mark 41 nautical-miles from the finish.

The sailing will be tough as the yachts speed south at speeds of up to 25 knots for the maxis and the mid-fleet and smaller boats will have to climb big waves in Bass Strait, but the conditions will be manageable for all. Nowhere in the forecasts - government and commercial - is mentioned the dreaded S-word, 'southerly', that on this 628 nm course, which crosses the notoriously rough Bass Strait, means strong to gale force headwinds and punishing waves.

Side-on view of Chutzpah. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

In this scenario, the fastest yacht in the race, Bob Oatley's canting-keeled Reichel/Pugh 98 Wild Oats XI, could cut an extraordinary ten hours off the race record she set at one day, 18 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds in 2005 as well as taking line honours for the fourth consecutive year.

Wild Oats. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

But forecaster Roger Badham, who provides specialist services to a number of yachts in the fleet including Wild Oats XI, warns that the pace-setting big boats could be slowed by a lightening of the northerly flow as they close the Tasmanian coast on the afternoon and evening of Saturday, 27 December. "It's looking a bit wishy washy," Badham says. "They look like getting around Tasman Island around 9pm to midnight, still ahead of the race record but facing softer breeze."

Wild Oats XI's skipper Mark Richards sees the first six hours and the last six hours of the race deciding her record-breaking chances, "You could get to Tasman Light in 24 hours but it's a matter of getting from there to the finishing line, which can take 12 hours. You just don't know."

Following Wild Oats XI home to Hobart should be Grant Wharington's Jones designed 98-foot canting-keeled maxi Skandia and the fixed-keel R/P 80 ASM Shockwave 5 (Andrew Short). Next into Constitution Dock should be Matt Allen's modified Volvo 70 Ichi Ban and Peter Harburg's well-sailed R/P 66 Black Jack - another two entrants equipped with canting keels. Wharington concedes his older maxi Skandia has little chance of beating Wild Oats XI into Hobart and so has configured her to win the race's major trophy, the Tattersall's Cup.

Sydney skyline with the CYCA in the foreground. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

The international yachting community will be following the fortunes of the two brand new Reichel/Pugh designs, the 63-foot Loki, owned by Stephen Ainsworth and the 62-foot Limit of Alan Brierty, which should also both enjoy the downwind conditions. They are virtually sister designs. Limit's slightly more plumb bow profile accounts for the overall length difference. Loki has a more conservative 'pin-head' shaped mainsail while Limit has square-topped mainsail, inspired by latest Volvo and America's Cup grand-prix sail design.

British America's Cup and Olympic sailor Andy Beadsworth, tactician/helmsman aboard Loki, welcomed the forecasts of more moderate winds than those issued earlier in the week, "we don't want to break the boat on its very first outing but we also want to push the boat hard and see what we can do on its first race."

Dockside at the CYCA. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

Forecaster Badham believes winner of the Tattersall's Cup is most likely to come from the mid-sized band of boats, which include the race-hardened, well-campaigned TP52s Wot Now (Graeme Wood), Ragamuffin (Sid Fischer), Quest (Bob Steel), Cougar II (Alan Whitely) and the boats most likely to be close behind them at Tasman Island including Ray Roberts' canting-keeled Cookson 50 Quantum Racing, R/P 55 Yendys (Geoff Ross), the Cookson 50 Shogun (Rob Hanna) and Geoff Boettcher's R/P 47 Secret Men's Business 3. By turning up at Tasman Light between nine in the morning and mid-day they would benefit from more reliable winds over the last tricky 40.8 nm across Storm Bay and up the River Derwent to the finish.

The race has eleven overseas entries: 41SUD (Jean-Luc Esplaas, New Caledonia), Pinta-M (Atse Blei, Netherlands), Winsome (Harry Heijst, Netherlands), Lady Courier (Géry Trentesaux, France), Pachamama Top to Top Global Climate Expedition (Dario Schwoerer, Switzerland), Walross 4 (Academy Sailing Club, Germany), Mustang Sally (Warren Batt, New Zealand), Time Lord (Donald Munro, New Zealand), Kioni-Global Yacht Racing (UK), Jus' Do It 3 (Ian Darby, Scotland), Ragtime (Chris Welsh, USA).

Although the forecast conditions will not suit her, the overseas yacht with the best chance of a Tattersall's Cup win is Lady Courrier, a Beneteau First 45, which in 2008 won the Bell Lawrie Scottish Series, decided on IRC handicap. Trentesaux is a very experienced offshore sailor who has twice been in French teams contesting the Rolex Commodores' Cup in the United Kingdom, masterminding the French win in 2006. With his previous boat, the Beneteau First 44.7 Courrier du Coeur, he placed third overall in the storm-ridden 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race.

41-Sud, an Archambault 40 from New Caledonia, is skippered by Jean-Luc Esplaas, who has in the past twenty years competed in short-handed as well as fully-crewed races in the Pacific. With Young 11 Noumea he survived the 1998 Sydney Hobart storm to place third in division. Pinta-M and Winsome are both 1972-vintage Sparkman & Stephens 41s. Pinta-M placed fifth overall on IRC corrected time in the 2005 Rolex Fastnet. The anticipated downwind race will not suit them. Like the similar S&S 47 Love & War from the same era, which won the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart, they are at their best upwind in strong winds.

Sydney's Opera House, seen across the harbour. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

The USA's sole entry is the legendary Ragtime, the hard-chine plywood 65-footer originally named Infidel, which John Spencer designed for Sir Tom Clark of New Zealand in 1965. Thwarted from entering the 1967 Sydney Hobart by the CYCA's firm stance in those days against admitting radical designs, Clark sold the boat to a syndicate of Americans based in Long Beach, California. Ragtime went on to win line honours in the 1973 and 1975 Los Angeles-Honolulu Transpac races and continued to be a Transpac line honours contender through to the 1990s. She sat neglected in Long Beach Harbour for five years until a consortium including Welsh bought her at a sheriff's auction and got her to the start of the 2005 Transpac.

Welsh subsequently bought out his partners to take sole ownership and give Ragtime an extensive refit, in consultation with designer Alan Andrews. He installed a new rudder, a new keel and a carbon rig, adding a new mainsail and new asymmetrical spinnakers. Earlier this year Ragtime won the 3571nm Tahiti Race from Los Angeles to Papeete and in October won the IRC handicap division of New Zealand's Coastal Classic, from Auckland to Russell.

A fleet of 100 yachts will compete in this year's race, which starts at 1300 AEDT, 26 December 2008. The Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet will have crews representing the USA, UK, New Zealand, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia and New Caledonia as well as every Australian state.

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2008

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