Another classic - Rolex Sydney Hobart lives up to its tough reputation

With winds of no more than 20 knots forecast just prior to the start, this year's Rolex Sydney Hobart was lining up to be a relatively benign event. But despite a moderate forecast, the world's toughest 'classic 600 mile' offshore race did not fail to live up to its reputation, with competitors not only having to survive, but race through one of Mother Nature's most treacherous obstacle courses, an event which eight years ago claimed the lives of six sailors.

Seventy-eight yachts took the start line of the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart, a smaller field than previous years, but by no means lacking in quality. While in 2005 the focus for line honors was the fight between two brand-new 98ft sisterships Wild Oats XI and Alfa Romeo, this year there were potentially five boats gunning for line honors - Bob Oatley's Wild Oats XI back to defend her title, this time against two other 30m supermaxis Charles Brown and Bill Buckley's Maximus from New Zealand and Grant Wharington's heavily modified 2003 winner Skandia. Added to the mix were the Volvo Open 70s, Volvo Ocean Race winner ABN AMRO One and Matt Allen's Ichi Ban (formerly Grant Wharington's Brunel), 28ft shorter, but no less potent given hard enough conditions.

Outside of the maxis, some of the hottest competition was to be found in the 50-60ft range where several skippers were lining up for an equally heavyweight bout with their latest hardware. This included Geoff Ross' brand new 55 footer Yendys, Stephen Ainsworth's all conquering Loki, the canting keel Cookson 50s Quantum Sails and Living Doll and Graeme Wood's newly acquired Nelson Marek 52, Wot Yot.
YENDYS, Geoff Ross sailing off Tasman Island. Photo by: Carlo Borlenghi/ Rolex.

In addition to this were the stalwart Rolex Sydney Hobart entries, some celebrating more than 40 participations in the race. Then there were several first timers including boats having made their way around the world to reach the start. These included Adventure, a British services owned and run 67ft steel boat skippered by Major Charles Roberts of the Royal Signals, Michele Colenso's Oyster 55 Capriccio of Rhu, midway through a round the world cruise and raising awareness and money for breast cancer and yachts such as Chris Bull's Jazz and Italian Danilo Salsi's DSK Comifin (as well as ABN AMRO) that were shipped in from Europe especially for the race.

Conditions could not have been more perfect for the departure with the sun out and a southeasterly wind allowing the boats to reach out of Sydney Harbor, watched by an estimated 500,000 spectators from land or on board the vast array of vessels lining the race course. As expected, it was the Mark Richards-skippered race favorite Wild Oats XI that was fastest out of the blocks, scoring the psychological advantage of leading the fleet out through Sydney Heads into the open sea.

Prior to the start, conditions the first night had been forecast to be the briskest of the race but with winds unlikely to be more than 20 knots. However this was a southerly wind that had been blowing for at least two days and as the boats sailed further offshore this wind would clash with the south flowing current, creating a dangerous wind against current situation with steep, sharp waves. Thus competitors were faced with the hard decision: they could head offshore where they would find stronger winds and a more powerful, favorable current that would speed them south faster, but in taking this option they would risk their boats in these dangerous, potentially boat-breaking waves. Alternatively, they could tack back inshore where there was less wind, less and possibly even unfavorable current, but flatter water.

For most, this decision came down to the type of boat they were sailing. Having survived the rigors of the Volvo Ocean Race, Mike Sanderson's ABN AMRO One headed offshore, while Wild Oats XI and the majority of the fleet tacked back into more protected waters inshore.

Just as conditions were abating a little in the early hours of the morning, news filtered through from the race course of two dismastings. Despite making it around the world virtually unscathed, the Rolex Sydney Hobart proved too much for ABN AMRO One. While storming along offshore in 30-35 knots of wind, she had briefly pulled into the lead ahead of Wild Oats when her mast had snapped.

"It was all familiar territory," commented skipper Mike Sanderson of the conditions - they had encountered considerably worse on the upwind leg to New York on the Volvo Ocean Race. "There were two big bangs and it all came tumbling down. Something broke which had just died. Maybe we were lucky it didn't go in the Volvo Ocean Race. All we have left is up to the first spreader."
Rescue operation underway with MAXIMUS. Photo by: Daniel Forster/ Rolex.

At around the same time - 0300 local time on 27 December - the mast also fell on board the New Zealand line honors contender Maximus. Her dismasting was the more alarming as her forestay had parted company at the masthead, causing the towering spar to fall backwards into the cockpit. This would have crushed several of her crew had the mast's fall not been broken by landing on the winches and the boat's twin steering wheels.

"I think we were incredibly lucky no one was killed," said crewman Ian Trelaven, who had suffered a severe head injury which briefly knocked him unconscious. "I was down to leeward getting ready for the leeward traveler and heard the crunching. I hit the deck and the boom must have got me in the back of the head and just pushed me into the deck. It landed on a winch and it stopped doing any serious damage to me."

In addition to Treleaven, four other of Maximus' crew Glen Attrill, George Hendy, David Mundy and Martin Hannon were injured, suffering a mixture of injury to their lower back, head, ribs and pelvis. They were taken off the boat either by police launch, or in the most urgent cases by helicopter. Most seriously hurt was New Zealander David Mundy who broke his leg and some ribs and was airlifted off in a stretcher. All but one were released from the hospital within 24 hours.

A day into the Rolex Sydney Hobart the severe conditions of the first night had claimed nine boats that had retired with a variety of technical problems, mostly to do with their steering, rudder or rig. The most serious of these was Mike Freebairn's classic 1968 overall winner, Ray White Koomooloo. While sailing in a 22 knot southwesterly on the morning of the 27th, the 41 footer fell badly off a backless wave. Soon after, she started to flood rapidly. "We did everything we could to save the boat," said Freebairn. "We started ripping up the floorboards trying to find where the water was coming in. We couldn't locate the problem. We started bailing for a while, then I decided for the safety of the crew that we'd better abandon,"

Freebairn and the crew of their stricken yacht transferred via life raft to the British services yacht Adventure, which had diverted to go to their assistance (for which they were later awarded five hours redress). From Adventure they were subsequently taken aboard a police launch. This same police launch then went to 1988 overall Rolex Sydney Hobart race winner, Illusion, to transfer off skipper Graham Jackson who had suffered a fractured wrist, broken hand and a cracked sternum after he was thrown across the deck of his yacht.

"I was steering the boat when it launched off a huge wave," Jackson later explained. "The boat became airborne. When it crashed back down I was catapulted onto the deck hardware. We have a titanium tiller extension that snapped like a twig. I'm surprised the boat didn't break."

Twenty-four hours into the race, competitors were still sailing in lumpy seas, still upwind, albeit getting gradually lighter, with conditions not only taking their toll on boats, but on crew, with numerous incidents of seasickness and minor injuries. The second afternoon, the three remaining line honors contenders were crossing Bass Strait. Wild Oats XI had extended her lead to 40 miles, only to see it evaporate when they were becalmed for four hours off Flinders Island, northeast of Tasmania. Fortunately navigator Adrienne Cahalan had anticipated this and made sure they positioned the silver supermaxi directly in front of the chasing boats.
WILD OATS XI sailing off Cape Sonnerat. Photo by: Daniel Forster/ Rolex.

In second place on the water, Skandia had closed to within five miles of Wild Oats XI when she broke her dagger board. This lifting board, located in front of her canting keel, prevented her from making leeway. Without it, her performance upwind would be seriously impaired. Wild Oats XI sped away once she picked up the new breeze and Skandia had to fend off advances from Matt Allen's Ichi Ban until the wind piped up the following morning by which time they were approaching Tasman Island on the southeast side of Tasmania.

With no board to prevent them sliding sideways upwind, the Skandia crew was forced to keep the canting keel more vertical and with this reduced stability were unable to power the boat up as much as they normally would. "Ichi Ban went from being 12 miles behind us to just sailing past us like we were going backwards," said skipper Grant Wharington later. "We had a #4 jib, like a storm jib, and a reef in the main and they had a full mainsail and a full-size jib. They just went past us like we were sailing a 40 footer."

At 21:52 on 28 December, Bob Oatley's Wild Oats XI crossed the finish line off downtown Hobart after 2 days, 8 hours, 52 minutes, and 33 seconds at sea, more than 14 hours slower than their record time in the 2005 Rolex Sydney Hobart, but a highly respectable performance given the conditions. They had taken line honors in two consecutive Rolex Sydney Hobarts, the first time this had happened in 42 years.

Owner Bob Oatley, 78, did not sail on board for this race, but was on the water to greet his yacht on her arrival. "I feel like a young man again," he enthused. "It was a great opportunity last year and the boys made the most of it. This year it was very different conditions. The other boats had a lot of trouble keeping up and they failed, I think, because they tried to hang on. I told them to play it safe and the boat would do the rest. You couldn't ask for more than this. We believed in the boat and the boat did the job."

Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards said they had suffered no gear failure save for a broken headsail on the first night. According to navigator Adrienne Cahalan there were two key tactical moments in their race - when they had decided to take the risk and head inshore on the first night, leaving ABN AMRO One to survive in the rough conditions offshore and then when they had covered Skandia and Ichi Ban prior to being becalmed in Bass Strait.
ICHI BAN. Photo by: Daniel Forster/ Rolex.

Second into Hobart was Ichi Ban who had managed to fend off the larger Skandia as the two boats turned off the wind and blazed off across Storm Bay and up the Derwent River. Unfortunately, the remaining race track wasn't enough for the larger Skandia to regain second place and Wharington's maxi finished just 16 minutes after his old Volvo Ocean Race boat.

Among the 50-60 footers Geoff Ross' new Yendys, sailed by a strong roster of crew from the BMW Oracle Racing America's Cup campaign, came out on top. With better boat speed and flawless tactics they had pulled ahead on the water but their chances of winning on handicap went up in smoke when the wind had dropped and shifted in direction on the approach to Tasman Island. The other highly tipped boat prior to the start, Stephen Ainsforth's Loki had suffered from the outset when they had to repair a broken hydraulic ram in their foredeck on the first night. This process had caused tones of water to flood below and for them to lose places, a position from which they were unable to recover.

As more and more boats arrived in Hobart, so opinions about the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart race became galvanized. No one could remember a Hobart race where the wind had failed to exceed 30 knots (only ABN AMRO One reported more on the first night). Nor could they remember one when from the start to Tasman Island they constantly had to sail upwind. Lou Abrahams, skipper of the Sydney 38 Challenge and sailing his 44th race to Hobart on this occasion (and equaling the record number of participations in the process) said: "I think it was not a hard race. I can remember races where it has been upwind and in rougher seas. This one was generally moderate upwind."

Due to the heavily upwind-biased conditions several of the top handicap positions were taken by the better sailed classic yachts from the 1970s. Built to the IOR rating rule of the day, these boats are heavy and with a fine bow and stern and are superb, even comfortable upwind compared to the modern breed of lightweight speedsters. And so it was that a piece of Rolex Sydney Hobart history - Love & War, Peter Kurts' 1974 and 1978 race winner was able to make her hat trick. Kurts died in January 2005, and his Sparkman & Stephens-designed 47 footer was being sailed this year by his former navigator Lindsay May and a team made up of crew from the Sydney-based maxi Brindabella, including owner George Snow.

"I always said to Peter and to Simon (Peter Kurts' son) that this boat could win the Hobart race again," said May. "She just had to be on the start line on the right day when the conditions were right and she'll win the race and that's exactly what happened. Upwind under this handicap, this boat will sail above its handicap almost consistently."

While the lightweight boats headed inshore, Love & War headed offshore with similar tactics to ABN AMRO, but unlike the VO70 survived the conditions, shooting south on an abnormally fast current that at times topped 4.5 knots.

May and the Love & War crew, said their result was a fitting tribute to Kurts, who during his life was a pillar of the Australian yacht racing community. "We tried to sail the boat in the spirit that Kurtsie would have sailed it and that was to sail it hard, and to keep asking the questions all the time, and to drink plenty of tea," said May.

Handicap division winners:
Division 0: Ichi Ban, Matt Allen
Division 1: Yendys, Geoff Ross
Division 2: DSK Comifin, Danilo Salsi
Division 3: Challenge, Lou Abrahams
Division 4: Love & War, Lindsay May
PHS 1: Ocean Skins, Tony Fowler
PHS 2: Another Fiasco, Damian Suckling
Sydney 38: Challenge, Lou Abrahams
Cruising: Capriccio of Rhu Michele Colenso

Line Honors winner:
Wild Oats XI, Mark Richards

Listen to recorded audio interviews from the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race:

For more information about the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2006 including updated position reports (every 10 minutes) please visit

All contents are copyright (c) 2006 by Northern Breezes, Inc. All information contained within is deemed reliable but carries no guarantees. Reproduction of any part or whole of this publication in any form by mechanical or electronic means, including information retrieval is prohibited except by consent of the publisher.