Saturday, 26 December 2009

RSHYR: Alfa Romeo and RÂN stake their claims at the start, no fairy tale for Etihad Stadium

Neville Crichton's Alfa Romeo. Image copyright ROLEX/Kurt Arrigo.

by Jim Gale

Neville Crichton’s 100 foot maxi Alfa Romeo this afternoon grabbed bragging rights from arch rival Wild Oats XI by being the first yacht out of Sydney Harbour at the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

The race began under grey, drizzly conditions in a moderate 12 to 15 knot southerly breeze

With the boom of the starting canon still echoing across the Harbour there was a frantic explosion of colourful spinnakers across the fleet, the only colour on this very un-Sydney summers day.

The fastest route to the turning mark appeared to be up along the eastern shore, a gybe across back into the centre of the harbour, and then another gybe to lay the first mark. On board Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards abandoned his signature favoured start on the western pin end, crossing the centre of the starting line close to ICAP Leopard and racing towards Nielsen Park on starboard tack.

Alfa Romeo was content with a conservative start, trailing Wild Oats XI and ICAP Leopard across the starting line by several boat lengths. There seemed to be nothing between the speeds of the three giant yachts until they started to approach Watson’s Bay. Alfa Romeo suddenly seemed to find an extra gear, powering up beside the leading two boats. As she drew level with the upwind yachts Alfa Romeo copped their dirty air, and peeled off to gybe back across the harbour towards the western side, while the others pressed on, closing in on the spectator fleet. They should have followed Alfa Romeo.

Crichton’s 100 footer found that little extra breeze on the western side of the harbour and as Alfa Romeo and Wild Oats XI converged again as they lined up for the final charge to the first tuning mark Alfa Romeo was in command. Dirty air from nearby ICAP Leopard compounded Wild Oats XI’s disadvantage as she desperately tried to get her huge spinnaker around her forestay, and the giant sail dipped into the water.

By the time the boats reached the first mark and turned out through the Heads, Alfa Romeo had a 27 second lead over Wild Oats XI with ICAP Leopard a further 15 seconds behind.

With spinnakers hastily stowed below decks the three began a broad reach towards the seaward mark under main and genoa, reaching speeds of 14 knots in the lumpy, uncomfortable chop between the Heads. Despite the weather a reasonable fleet of spectator craft followed them out to sea.

Alfa Romeo would go on to hold that lead over Wild Oats XI by 21 seconds at the sea mark, the first time Bob Oatley’s silver grey maxi has been behind on the turn to Hobart for four years straight. Is this an omen?

Just seconds after the three front runners had dropped their spinnakers and began the reach out to the sea mark the British 72 footer RÂN loomed up to the mark, side by side with fourth placed 100 foot maxi, Investec LOYAL. Rounding the mark inside Investec LOYAL, RÂN laid claim to fourth out of the Harbour, and confirmed her position as one of the absolute pre-race favourites for handicap.

They were followed by two more 100 maxis, YuuZoo and Lahana surged up to the mark racing side by side, and just behind them Alan Brierty’s 62 foot Limit and a further 150 metres behind her, Geoff Ross’ Reichel Pugh 55 Yendys.

Both Limit and Yendys were outstanding in the lead up Rolex Trophy and Passage Series last week. A lot will happen between now and the finish in Hobart, and both will have their work cut out for them to hang onto RÂN in conditions that suit her down to the ground, but after such great starts they were cock-a-hoop.

“We had a great start on the pin end with Ran and Loki and got to the sea mark in good shape,” Yendys’ navigator Will Oxley reported not long after they cleared the sea mark.

“We are hard on the breeze in 20-23 knots and a lumpy sea state. The wind is holding to the right of the Rhumbline (the most direct course to Hobart) so the fleet are mostly proceeding seaward on starboard and we are all watching to see who will be the first to tack back towards the coast.”

Disappointment, though, for Grant Wharington and the crew of Etihad Stadium.

It was a miracle that they were on the start line at all. Two weeks ago the maxi lost her mast on the delivery trip to Sydney from her homeport of Melbourne. Since then it has been a race against time to fly a new, 44 metre carbon fibre mast from France, bake it back together after it was cut in two to fit onto the plane, put it into the boat and recut the giant sails to suit the new, longer spar. They looked to have somehow got it done by midnight last night. There were still a hundred things to fine tune, but it looked as though they could race.

Ten minutes from the start the fairy tale began to unravel. “We realised we weren’t able to keep the mast exactly in column (straight in layman’s terms) and we weren’t sure why because we hadn’t got it up to full racing pressure, so we started, and cleared ourselves of the fleet, so we wouldn’t impede any other boat, then sailed back up the harbour to see if we could sort it out,” Wharington explained. As the fleet pounded its way out to sea Etihad Stadium tacked around the harbour trying to fine tune the rigging. Under the race rules boats have six hours to clear the seaward mark, race officials promising to leave the marks in place until then.

But as Etihad Stadium circled her crew found a second problem, this time the blocks that manage the 15 tonne forces on the masts runners were out of alignment. Her race was over.

“I said all along that all the planets had to line up for us to be race ready. We had transport delays in France, aeroplane delays - everything had to fall into place,” Wharington said dockside. “I’m enormously disappointed, especially for my team. We have had more than 50 people working on this for the last two weeks, and an enormous input from every single person to get us so close.”

“We’ll have a couple of beers tonight and there’s a little bit of discussion around the camp that we might come out next week for another race that heads north.“

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race

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