Saturday, 26 December 2009

RSHYR: Tactical decisions the key to 2009 Rolex Sydney Hobart

Crowds at the CYCA marina in Rushcutters Bay, prior to the start of the 65th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. Image copyright ROLEX/Daniel Forster.

by Jim Gale

The Rolex Sydney Hobart will start this year under spinnaker in a moderate southerly breeze. As the yachts turn out to sea the spinnakers will be shoved down below, and they’ll stay there for most of the race, judging by the weather briefing given to skippers this morning by the Bureau of Meteorology’s Rob Webb.

Yesterday’s hopes of a north easterly breeze well out to sea appear to have evaporated: “those going east for a nor’easter might have to go a long way,” Web remarked.

Instead the fleet will spend this afternoon bashing into a 20 to 25 knot southerly, possibly easing around to the south east as the trough off NSW moves further offshore tonight.

Tomorrow the leading yachts are expected to encounter light winds in Bass Strait while the bulk of the fleet is still contending with a light south to south-easter along the NSW coast.

Monday afternoon’s forecast is for a moderate 20 to 25 knot westerly in Bass Strait, but these westerlies mean the fleet will be in the lee of the Tasmanian coast on the final leg to Tasman Island, so decisions about whether to sail the most direct course, and risk becalming, or to go further out and risk a long beat into a westerly wind to make the final turn into Storm Bay will be critical.

Adding to the uncertainty will be a serious of fronts moving across southern Tasmania. How these develop will have a significant impact on wind direction and strength.

The forecast is bad news for downwind speedboats like Bruce Taylor’s Victorian IRC 40 Chutzpah, but generally it is difficult to say which boats will get the most advantage from these conditions.

“It is confusing,” sailing master of last year’s overall winner Quest, Mike Green, laughed after the weather briefing. “We won’t really know what the weather is like until 12 hours into the race. It all depends on how the trough moves. There will be a lot of holes (areas with no wind) on the way to Hobart and that’s what will be hard about this race. Trying to stay out of them.”

Ian ‘Barney’ Walker, the helmsman of another pre-race favourite, Limit, says he is pretty happy with the forecast. “We go well in all conditions,” he says, but he does think that the current forecast will suit the English 72 footer RÂN, winner of this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race. “RÁN will be our biggest headache, she will be the boat to beat.”

Walker expects RÂN to put a lot of distance on her main rivals, the 50 to 60 footers, in the first 24 hours. But as the breeze lightens off in Bass Strait he hopes the smaller boats will be able to claw back some of that lost ground. “If it stays light enough long enough we’ll get back into the race with them,” he says, but thinks that right now RÂN should be favoured to pull off an extraordinary feat. - the Rolex Sydney Hobart and Fastnet races in the same year.

Perhaps for the first time in his life Grant Wharington, the skipper of the 100 foot maxi Etihad Stadium quite likes the idea of a lighter wind race. After an horrendous fortnight following the dismasting of his boat on its way to Sydney from Melbourne, Wharington and his crew have their new mast in place and will make the starting line today. “We finished at midnight last night, and the guys started again art 5a, this morning, but that is the most sleep we’ve had in two weeks,” he said.

More than 50 people have been involved in an epic race against time, to get the new mast from France, to bake it back together again, fit it to the boat and recut sails to fit the taller, lighter spar.

Ironically, the reward for all the stress is a faster boat. “The performance of the boat is going to be turbo charged with this new mast. We have more sail area than we had. We had already put a new keel on the boat that made us three and a half tonnes lighter for the same righting moment. It’s like if you were racing a V8 and you had an extra hundred horsepower. It’s incredible.

“There are still a hundred little jobs to do fine tuning the mast, and now they will have to be done on the racecourse. The lighter winds are a blessing.”

The line honours favourites remain the two 100 footers - Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats XI and Neville Crichton’s Alfa Romeo. There is nothing between these boats, and it is likely that one critical tactical decision, most likely off the Tasmanian coast, will prove the difference.

Alfa Romeo’s tactician Tom Addis believes the winner of the line honours duel is likely to win the Tattersall’s Cup as well. “This race will be way different for the different size boats in the fleet. From our perspective the bigger boats will be faster, able to sail much freer angles and the faster you can be from early on the better life will be. The forecast weather could create a big split between the big boats and the rest of the fleet. I’m happy to be on a bigger boat. There will be times on this race when some of the fleet will be reaching, some will be running and some will be going upwind,” Addis predicts.

“The race for overall will come down to the light airs once they are out of Bass Strait. That’s where the race will be lost or won.”

Grant Wharington is back into the race courtesy of the mast and sails he bought from Alfa Romeo owner Neville Crichton. It makes for an interesting scenario. What if Etihad Stadium gets to Hobart first?

“I guess he’s probably not considering us a threat at this stage and that’s why he has been so generous helping us out,” Wharington jokes. “It will be a very interesting handshake in Hobart if we get there in front of him.”

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race

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