Wednesday, 23 December 2009
Overall Contenders Geoff Ross Yendys, Simon Fisher-Limit, Lindsay May-Love&War, Michael Bellingham-Loki. Image copyright ROLEX/Daniel Forster.
by Jim Gale
Geoff Ross, the skipper of the Reichel/Pugh 55 Yendys and outright winner of the race in 1999 reckons that not even Nostradamus could predict the winner of this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart. “This is the most competitive race I’ve sailed in 15 years of sailing to Hobart,” he says.
In place of the usual two or three maxis match racing for line honours there will be eight at the start line, and while Wild Oats XI and Alfa Romeo will be at each other’s throats, none of the other six have come along to make up the numbers.
This is ICAP Leopard’s skipper Mike Slade’s fourth and possibly last crack at the title, and he hasn’t invested the sort of money it takes to ship a 100 foot yacht and its fully professional crew halfway round the world for the fun of it. ICAP Leopard won line honours in the Rolex Fastnet Race in August, and could well pull off the Fastnet/Hobart double.
Even more competitive, though, is the race for the Tattersall’s Cup, the trophy awarded to the outright winner on handicap, and the holy grail of Australian yachting. Will it go to one of the grand prix TP52s, the red hot 60 footers like Loki and Limit, the British 72 footer RÂN, which won the Rolex Fastnet and fancies a double just as much as Mike Slade, or with a big westerly forecast for Bass Strait on day three of the race, when the bigger boats are already tied up in Constitution Dock, could this be the year of the little boats?
Tattersall's Cup for the overall handicap winner. Image copyright ROLEX/Daniel Forster.
It depends on the winds, and with the cyclone in West Australia leaving the weather forecasting models in a confused heap, no-one knows for sure what to expect.
“The TP52s will dominate if it’s a light downhill race because that’s their sweet spot,” says Ross. Yendys was built with heavy, typical Rolex Sydney Hobart weather in mind, but this year modifications have also improved her all round performance. Last weekend she beat Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin and RÂN in moderate conditions in the Rolex Trophy Passage Series, a huge moral boost for Ross and his crew. “If you look at the 60 footers I think we are very competitive. We are very competitive up and downwind with the modifications. “
Ross will be happy, though, if the wind picks up from the south. He was about the only one complaining in Hobart last year after the sort of ideal, downwind jaunt normally reserved for sailor’s fairy tales. He thought it was a bit boring. “Yendys has been built for really heavy weather and in three years it’s never let us down. Structurally it’s a very good boat. I’m not quite as strong structurally but I can put up with it,” he laughs.
Other boats, too are hoping for a bit of breeze. “When we conceived of RÂN the challenge was to build a boat that would perform in the light winds of the Mediterranean but also sustain the big weather of the Rolex Sydney Hobart,” says her skipper, Niklas Zennstrom.
“We have a bigger bulb on the keel and a fuller hull for tough conditions but it does mean we struggle in very light wind.”
Zennstrom believes he has the edge on the two near sisterships, Stephen Ainsworth’s RP63 Loki and Alan Brierty’s RP62 Limit if there is some upwind work but concedes that they will hurt him in a light, downwind race.
The local sailors, though, are wary of the British boat and her highly credentialed crew. “Overseas boats that come here tend to do particularly well. People don’t come here for fun, they’re serious. They won’t hold back,” warns Loki’s navigator Michael Bellingham. “We are all very cautious about RÂN, the new kid on the block, so it was good to see [during the Rolex Trophy Passage Series] that we are all very competitive with her.”
Last year the crew had barely two weeks to get the brand new Loki onto the starting line, finishing a worthy seventh overall. With a full year to finesse the boat Bellingham believes Loki has a real shot at the Tattersall’s Cup this year. “We’re pretty happy with Loki. The conditions look good for us. We are a good all round boat, it’s a matter of whether the people on board are up to it.
“We’ve done a lot of work on the sails and maximising our rating, but these things are racing machines and they’re fraught with danger and problems and you always have to be cautious, sailing within the limits of the boat, and I think we have the crew to do that.”
Limit’s navigator, Simon Fisher, is quietly confident also, believing his boat can match RÂN upwind. “For our boat we need some upwind work so the competitor in me wants upwind but the sailor in me would rather go downwind,” he jokes.
“What’s really nice here is there are lots of really competitive boats,” says RÂN’s Zennstrom. “The more the competition the better you’re going to sail your own boat and that’s what you’re here for. To race, not just to sail around by yourself.”
And if the weather, and that 30 knot westerly in Bass Strait on Monday, does turn out to favour the slower boats, don’t write off Simon Kurts’ Love & War. She has won the race three times already, and under the guidance of wily navigator Lindsay May she always sails at her best. The current forecast doesn’t seem to suit the old, heavy IOR boat that is fast to windward and dead slow downwind, but the unpredictability of this year’s modelling means May hasn’t given up all hope.
“We certainly prefer upwind. We are on a boat that will take four days or so to get to Hobart and the models at this point in time aren’t complete, they run out before we will be finishing. So you just have to wait. You sail in what you’ve got.”
Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race