Monday, 29 December 2008

Rolex Sydney Hobart 2008: Flying Fifties Find it Fast and Furious

Matt Allen's Ichi Ban sailing past Cape Raoul. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

by Giles Pearman

Strong WNW winds off the Tasmanian coast last night and a northwesterly reaching gale force in the Derwent River today blew the 50-55ft boats home to dominate the provisional handicap placings in IRC Division 0 and Division 1 of the 64th Rolex Sydney Hobart. Incredibly, given the size difference, the first TP52 to finish, Bob Steel's Quest, was only four and a-half hours behind the Line Honours winner Wild Oats XI. The race has been so fast many yachts have beaten the bags freighted to Hobart for the crews. This has not prevented them heading off to celebrate in their not so fragrant sailing gear.

The sensationally fast downwind TP52s provisionally fill the first three places on corrected time in IRC Division 1 for the biggest fixed-keel boats. Quest has corrected out 28 minutes ahead of Cougar II (Alan Whiteley) with Graeme Wood's Wot Now in third and race veteran Syd Fischer's Ragamuffin in fourth. With all boats home in class, Ray Roberts' Cookson 50 has won IRC Division 0 for canting-keeled boats from CYCA Commodore Matt Allen's Jones 70 Ichi Ban with Peter Harburg's Reichel/Pugh 66 Black Jack third. Line Honours winner Wild Oats XI was last in this five-boat division, with Skandia in fourth.

Robert Steels' Quest. Image copyright Rolex/Daniel Forster.

Quest also has a strong chance of winning the Tattersalls Cup, the major trophy, for the overall IRC handicap winner. But with most of the fleet still at sea in developing winds, this is still very much a maybe rather than a certainty. Steel, who won the race in 2002 with a previous Quest, returned to the race after a five-year break with some of the crew from that win, including sailing master Michael Green, a veteran of 28 Hobart races. Green felt the hardest part of the race was the last 11 nautical miles with up to 50 knots of northerly in the Derwent River.

Quest sails off Tasman Island. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

Steel explained that Quest got a break on the other TP52s and similar-sized boats on the first night, with an early gybe back towards the New South Wales coast, "a bit of a funny front went through; we gybed in and out the back of it; it only lasted for about 20 or 30 minutes. We found steady breeze and away we went. We ended up ahead of our opposition by four or five miles."

An offshore course paid off for Quest on the approach to Tasman Island, at the southernmost tip of Tasmania, where she made a big gain on her closest rival Cougar II. Despite a seemingly strong position, Steel was understandably reluctant to talk about the possibility of overall victory before the CYCA confirms the situation, "we'll just have to wait and see, but I am confident we have won our division. Maybe we've won the whole thing, which would be pretty good for an old bloke."

Cougar II's skipper Alan Whiteley, although he may have lost a winning chance, thoroughly enjoyed the race, "it was very fast; the boat is incredibly fast. We had 15 hours doing 18, 20, 24 knots." Great fun, but not without its problems, as he continued, "it wears the crew out physically. We don't have electric grinders. But it was lots of fun."

Syd Fischer's Ragamuffin. Image copyright Rolex/Daniel Forster.

Ragamuffin's skipper Syd Fischer, who is 81 and was sailing his 40th Rolex Sydney Hobart, could not remember one with as much hard downwind running as this one, "I enjoyed the race; the blokes did a helluva good job. At times we were doing 24 knots in 24 knots of breeze. I must say the body squeaks a bit."

Limit chased by dolphins off Cape Raoul. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

Whilst the race conditions have favoured the 50-footers, between them and the Line Honours battle was squeezed another contest between three 60-footers and the 80-foot ASM Shockwave. Roger Hickman, who skippered and helmed Alan Brierty's brand new R/P62 Limit into fifth place in IRC 1, confirmed that the competition in this group was no less intense and that this latest series of very fast downwind boats were "a little exhausting'.

Alan Brierty's Limit sails past the Organ Pipes. Image copyright Rolex/Daniel Forster.

"They're bigger and they're faster, but the work load just gets more and more. You are always on the edge, either with the jib top and the jib top staysail or with the 3A, or with the Code Zero. You push, push, push and you are doing 15 to 18 knots down waves in 12 knots of breeze," Hickman describes with a smile on his face. "The whole crew is poised for the next sail change. You don't get to sit back and say, 'Gee this is lovely; look at Maria Island or look at the Schoutens'!"

Loki is cheered by dolphins in Tasmanian waters. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

Stephen Ainsworth, skipper of the very similar new R/P63 Loki, said: "The race was great. We got here in less than two days and if every Hobart race was like that, I would be very pleased." A sentiment echoed by many of the crews that finished today. Ainsworth is clearly delighted with his new steed, "it was so much fun; we had some great rides; last night in particularly we were carrying a spinnaker 4A, the wind was blowing up to 33, 34 knots and we were honking. Close to 29 knots under spinnaker is going some." Adding after a bit of reflection, "it was a bit scary; a white knuckle ride."

Quantum Racing sailing along the Tasmanian coastline. Image copyright Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi.

With the balance of the fleet spread mainly between Tasman Island to the south and midway through Bass Strait to the north, all eyes are on how the weather will develop over the next few critical hours. The back markers face a torrid night with westerlies building to beyond 25 knots through the Strait, particularly between northeastern tip of Tasmania and Cape Barren Island. Those in the lee of Tasmania face difficulties of a different nature, having to transit from a northwesterly flow into a southwesterly flow at some point in the darkness.

The first of the foreign boats Ragtime (USA) has escaped these weather conundrums, and at 2000 AEDT was approaching the Organ Pipes at Cape Raoul. With luck she should pass this stunning rock formation in daylight and finish sometime during the night. French yacht Lady Courrier is almost level with Eddystone Point, along side Jus' Do It (GBR), with the eastern seaboard of Tasmania to come. Walross IV (GER) and 41 Sud (New Caledonia) are side by side east of Cape Barren Island, whilst the two Dutch S&S 41s Winsome and Pinta-M are engaged in a private battle off Flinders Island, with Winsome holding a ten nm advantage. Swiss yacht Pachamama has yet to enter the Strait after her layover off Eden.

Geoff Ross' Yendys. Image copyright Rolex/Daniel Forster.

Of the 100 yachts that started on 26 December, three have retired (Georgia, Sanyo Maris and Inner Circle) and thirteen have finished. The first foreign yacht expected home is Chris Welsh's Ragtime (USA), due in some time tonight.

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2008

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