Monday, 28 December 2009

RSHYR: Fickle race stretches crews' patience to its limits

Stephen Ainsworth's RP63 Loki heading south to Hobart. Image copyright ROLEX/Daniel Forster.

by Jim Gale

On day three of the 65th Rolex Sydney Hobart, it’s not just the skills and endurance of the crews that are being tested; they need the patience of a saint.

Depending where they are on the racecourse, some yachts are fairly skipping along, and others are barely moving. At the back of the fleet, just breaking away from the mainland coast, the smaller, slower boats are enjoying a handy breeze after a long and at times frustrating beat down the NSW coast. But the further into Bass Strait the fleet pushes, the lighter the breeze gets, and in the middle it all but disappears.

“We are in a parking lot,” Michael Bellingham, the navigator of Stephen Ainsworth’s normally super fast Reichel/Pugh 63 Loki reported. “It’s time to break out the cards.” Sailors with disAbilities, a Lyons 54 design, is about a third of the way across the Strait.

In a phone call late this morning, skipper David Pescud reported: “It’s like a millpond, but we’re happy with our four and a half knot boat speed, given the conditions. What little breeze there is is shifting to the south. It’s weird. We’re used to having 10 metre waves trying to chop our heads off.

“If it wasn’t a race it would be beautiful sailing. It’s become a very tactical race, but it’s so slow. It’s given us a lot of time to think, it’s like a giant game of chess.” The lull has stymied the highly touted 50 to 70 footers all morning as they struggle to keep up with the leading maxis on handicap.

The race leaders, super maxis Alfa Romeo, Wild Oats XI and ICAP Leopard, were affected by it off Flinders Island during the night, but were still able to keep up some momentum. The gate really closed as Wild Oats XI broke out on the southern side and found a bit of breeze. As is so often the case in ocean racing, the rich are getting richer and the poor more philosophical.

“It has been a little frustrating watching the big boats pass through unscathed,” said Will Oxley, the navigator on Geoff Ross’ Reichel/Pugh 55, Yendys. “Behind us the fleet is closing on us but we are hoping for the first in first out theory in lulls to keep on working.”

The good news is that there is some breeze on the other side of the calm, and the boats are picking up speed as they close in on Flinders Island, though nothing like the double digit speeds they have been recording. As the yachts move down the Tasmanian coast there is another hole around Maria Island lying in wait.

The lead maxis were reaching 20 knots very early this morning as they raced past Eddystone Point on the Tasmanian north east coast, but they have been steadily slowing the further south they have ventured. This whole race has become a matter of avoiding the lulls and holes and because it has been so slow, a true test of patience and crew management.

Crews spent the early part of the race on the rail, cold and wet, and lately, scouring the horizon looking for wind. Managing the watches and ensuring that everyone gets enough rest has become a key factor. Tired crews can make bad decisions.

Logistical management is also coming into unexpected play. On the grand prix racers, weight is everything, right down to the amount of food and water allotted to each crew member. Many of the racing crews get by on freeze dried food, nuts and Mars Bars - and a happy skipper is one who hasn’t lugged an extra sandwich all the way to Hobart for nothing.

But this race is taking a day longer than envisaged. “We have started to ration water to make sure we have enough for this extended Rolex Sydney Hobart race,” Yendys’ Oxley says. “The trimmers are no longer allowed to pour fresh water over their winches to keep them quiet. No tea or coffee overnight.”

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race

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