Precision Footwork at the Start

December 26, 2008

SKANDIA, after start of the race.Wild Oats XI, Bob Oatley's canting-keeled Reichel/Pugh maxi, chasing her fourth consecutive line honours win, was leading the Rolex Sydney-Hobart race after four hours of sailing. She had pretty much led all the way after clearly after winning the start in Sydney Harbour. At 18.30 AEDT, in a friendly following northeasterly of 20-22 knots, the 98-foot Wild Oats XI under her big asymmetric spinnaker was bowling along at 18-20 knots of boat speed, nearing Jervis Bay and about 12 nautical miles offshore.

Behind Wild Oats XI, lies Grant Wharington's Skandia. The 66-foot canting-keeled Black Jack (Peter Harburg) was another 8.5 nm behind, half a nautical mile ahead of the modified Volvo 70 Ichi Ban (Matt Allen). Then came a group of fixed keelers: Alan Brierty's new 62-foot Limit only 1.5 nm behind Ichi Ban, followed closely by Stephen Ainsworth's near sister ship, the 63-foot Loki, ASM Shockwave (Andrew Short), an eight-year-old 80-footer and Geoff Ross' 55-foot Yendys.

Ray Roberts' Cookson 50 Quantum, a canting keeler, was slightly further out to sea, in more wind pressure, leading the TP52s Wot Now (Graeme Wood), Ragamuffin (Syd Fischer), Quest (Bob Steel), Cougar II (Alan Whiteley), Wot Yot (Bill Sykes) and the R/P 47 Secret Men's Business 3 (Geoff Boettcher).

This leading group was sailing comfortably, on port gybe in slight seas, laying courses either side of 180-degrees that put them almost straight on course for Tasman Island, the last rounding mark of the 628 nm course 41n miles from the finish in Hobart. Black Jack's skipper Mark Bradford said by telephone from the boat that she had been sailing comfortably, in 22 knots of breeze under asymmetric spinnaker at 16-20 knots of boat speed for the previous three hours, with some crewmen sleeping below. "We are resting everyone up, expecting more breeze, 25 knots tonight," he said.

At 1900 AEDT, Geoff Ross' Yendys was leading the IRC handicap chase according to the CYCA Yacht Tracker. Navigator Will Oxley commented, "We are just rolling on here. We were very happy with our start and trying to set ourselves up to make the best use of the southerly current. Spirits are high on board."

"Fantastic downwind sailing and the modifications we made to the boat are a big improvement to our downwind performance so we are happy about that!" added Oxley, who also reported 20-22 knots of NE breeze.

The leading bunch, besides facing tougher sailing in stronger wind overnight, was facing decisions with the north-easterly intensifying offshore, whereas the current ahead is stronger inshore on the west side of an eddy off Bateman's Bay and running towards the south at two knots for a useful shove.

Under a swirl of television and photographers' helicopters, the 100-boat fleet started cleanly in a classic Sydney Harbour 12-15 knot north-easterly sea breeze on a perfect Sydney summer's day that had brought out thousands of spectators on harbour headlands and cliff tops overlooking the Tasman Sea, and on boats. Although the tide was ebbing at a speed of half a knot in the main channel, there were no recalls.

Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards, who manoeuvres the giant maxi like a dinghy, again pulled off one of his perfect starts as first boat to clear the line from the pin end.

WILD OATS XI leads SKANDIA out of Sydney Harbour.Richards and his tactician Iain Murray did not appear to have much room to clear the pin and tack back towards mid-harbour as they reached the spectator boat enclosure line on the northwestern shore. But their judgement and Wild Oats XI's startling acceleration off the line enabled them to quickly tack onto port and clear the nearest chasing boats, the TP52 Wot Now and the fleet's other 98-foot canting-keeled maxi, Skandia.

While Wild Oats XI sped clear of the chasing bunch on a long port tack across the harbour Skandia, her main rival for line honours became caught up in the following bunch. Unable to point as high and slower through tacks, while her canting keel was swung from one side to the other, she fell into disturbed airflow firstly from Wot Now to windward and then Limit, which lee-bowed her. Wild Oats XI was first to round the initial turning mark between North and South Head, with Skandia about a minute behind; then Loki, Black Jack and Limit in close proximity.

Unfortunately for the leaders, the perfect conditions, with only slight seas outside Sydney Heads, were also perfect for power-boaters. While exclusion zones retain spectator boats inside the harbour, they are free to roam offshore. A swarm of them closed around Wild Oats XI and Skandia as they cleared the seaward mark, about 4.5 nm from the start, with Wild Oats XI 1min 8sec ahead. As the maxis set their spinnakers for the dash south, Wild Oats XI particularly suffered in the wash from the unruly spectator boats. Skandia, sailing a slightly hotter angle out to sea, gained and at times looked to have the edge on her rival.

With the leaders almost a quarter of the way down the track to Hobart a fast time looks on the cards, with some predictions still suggesting a record pace. At the final weather briefing this morning, these predictions looked less than secure with two changes in conditions lying in wait. The first is a trough forming in Bass Strait that looks to be pushing through the existing high pressure and creating a large patch of unstable wind for the unwary. The second trap is the eastern seaboard of Tasmania where the winds look variable in direction as the High Pressure northerlies fight a series of frontal westerlies for ascendancy.

Bob Oatley's Wild Oats XI established the current Course Record of 42 hours 40 minutes in 2005. In order to better this time the first yacht needs to be at the finish in Hobart before 0740 AEDT on Sunday 28th December.

The 100-boat fleet in the 64th Rolex Sydney Hobart has crews representing the USA, UK, New Zealand, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia and New Caledonia as well as every Australian state.

For more information about the Rolex Sydney Hobart 2008 including the entry list, yacht tracker and results please visit the event website at