New Reichel Pugh boats set for intense fight: tough competition looms for new 55 and 60 footers

The line-up for the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart dropped to 79 today after Ludde Ingvall's 90ft maxi Diabetes was dismasted during a training sail. While sailing under reefed main and jib in 16-17 knot easterly winds off Sydney Heads, the mast appeared to compress causing it to buckle and fall overboard, said a disappointed Ingvall, a two time line honors winner of the Sydney Hobart race. To prevent further damage the mast was cut away and, with just six days left to go before the Boxing Day start, there seems little chance of Ingvall finding a replacement spar.

Next week, while the 98 footers slog it out for line honors glory at the front of the Rolex Sydney Hobart race fleet, a few miles astern of them a heated competition will be taking place among the 50 to 60 footers.

There, going head to head, will be two of the newest boats in this year's Rolex Sydney Hobart: Stephen Ainsworth's Loki, launched in June 2005, finished third in class and seventh overall last year; Geoff Ross' latest Yendys is brand new. Both boats were designed by San Diego-based naval architects Reichel/Pugh - also responsible for Wild Oats XI, last year's Rolex Sydney Hobart line honors and handicap winner, and race record setter. But while Loki is a 60ft racer cruiser, Yendys is a 55ft full-on race boat, and as an indication of what is expected in this year's Boxing Day run south, the two boats finished last week's Rolex Trophy Series in Sydney Harbor separated by just 0.1 point on handicap, Loki ahead by a whisker.

The Rolex Trophy Series indicated that the two boats are suited to different conditions. Yendys has been designed and built to be a competitive racing yacht offshore under IRC, and according to owner Ross her builders in China put as much structure into her as they would a maxi boat. She would seem to be the faster boat if the going gets tough, while Loki is better in light conditions. As Loki's Stephen Ainsworth puts it : "They (Yendys) won three out of the four races in the first two days when it was 20 knots plus and we won three out of the four races on the last two days when it was below 20 knots."
Loki sailing the Rolex Sydney Hobart race. Photo by: Carlo Borlenghi/ Rolex

Loki has the advantage of her crew having put many miles under her keel in the last 18 months - aside from winning the Rolex Trophy Series, they also were first in the recent Savills Regatta here in Australia and were second in the big boat class at Hahn Premium Race Week at Hamilton Island in August. Her crew includes former Etchells world champion Cameron Miles and Volvo Ocean Race veteran Tom Braidwood. But Yendys is coming on line fast and has much more speed potential to eke out and a crew bristling with Volvo Ocean Race talent, including Noel Drennan and Pete Doriean.

Geoff Ross had the new Yendys built when the Tattersall's Cup, the main handicap trophy for the Rolex Sydney Hobart, was changed to be raced under IRC rather than IMS. Typically the race has been won by 45 - 50 footers, says Ross. The new Yendys is a little larger and is simple but powerful - she has no canting keel, no running backstays, no overlapping jib, but a massive sail plan.
Flirt sailing the Rolex Sydney Hobart race. Photo by: Carlo Borlenghi/ Rolex.

The handicap winner in the Rolex Sydney Hobart will be partly decided by the weather conditions, but on a more level playing field the two newest boats in the fleet would be ones to watch. As Geoff Ross puts it: "On the ocean every dog has its day. A Beneteau 40.7 could clean us all up - that has happened and there's nothing you can do about that. If we are all in the same conditions then there is a bunch of good boats in Divisions 1 and 2: Flirt (Chris Dare's Corby 49), the canting keel Cookson 50 Quantum Racing, the Nelson Marek 52 (Graeme Wood's Wot Yot) - there are a bunch of good boats, all of which will be well-sailed."

This morning, six days out from the start, Barry Hanstrum, Regional Director, NSW of Australian Bureau of Meteorology, gave his long term forecast for this year's race. Hanstrum was at pains to point out that this was at the outer limit of reliable predictability. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology forecasted that as of the 26 December start, there will be southerly winds between a low pressure system in the Tasman Sea (between Australia and New Zealand) and a high pressure over the Australian Bight.

"At this range there are a couple of scenarios," said Hanstrum. "One is that the low will be far enough offshore in which case the wind would be a stiff southerly and conditions would be rough. That is the most likely scenario but it is still possible at this range that the low pressure system is closer to the New South Wales coast; if that unfolds there would be a period of gale force winds for the start of the race."

If this forecast proves true it will mean the 80 strong Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet will find themselves not only punching into headwinds, but also a dangerous seaway where the southerly wind counters the 2-3 knot south flowing East Australian Coast Current. As Wild Oats XI navigator Adrienne Cahalan puts it: "That is boat-breaking stuff because the seas lose their backs. No boats like that."
Wild Oats XI sailing the Rolex Sydney Hobart race. Photo by: Carlo Borlenghi/ Rolex.

While the timing of this forecast will be tightened up closer to the start, what is more certain is that the weather will improve. Hanstrum continues: "After the low develops and depending upon where that happens it will move away to New Zealand over the next day allowing the high pressure that is in the Bight to move further eastward. That will cause a lightening of the winds over the ensuing days as the course comes more under the influence of the ridge of high pressure than the winds around the low pressure system."

Running south from Sydney the boats must pass the eastern entrance to Bass Strait, between Tasmania and the Australian mainland, and it is weather funneling through the Strait combined with the strong south flowing current that makes the Rolex Sydney Hobart race course one of the most complex and treacherous. In a race where bad weather can cost lives, as it did in 1998, accurate weather forecasting is vital. Fortunately, says Hanstrum, their tools for creating forecasts have dramatically improved since the race eight years ago when six competitors lost their lives and 55 were rescued due to the severe weather. "The forecast on the third day of the three day forecast is now about as good as the one day forecast 10 years ago. The main reason for that improvement is that satellites around the globe are providing a huge amount of extra information in defining and analyzing what the current weather situation is globally. Thanks to that we have a much better chance of making a good forecast."

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