Wild Oats leads 78-strong fleet after spectacular start in the Rolex Sydney Hobart

As a spectacle to pry Sydney residents and visitors away from their Boxing Day BBQs, today's start of the 62nd Rolex Sydney Hobart could not have been better: a scorching sun, a respectable if chilly breeze, Sydney Harbor with its intricate topography and familiar landmarks such as the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge as a backdrop and a dense crush of spectator craft clearly delineating the race track out to the open sea.

While expectations of a spinnaker start were high, in the end the wind was more southeast than southwest and had piped up to 16-18 knots, rather than the forecast 10-12, causing the fleet to close reach out towards Sydney Heads at pace. With the 78 strong fleet starting as one but on two different lines, among the big boats on the northern line it was Bob Oatley's line honors favorite Wild Oats XI that led off the leeward end of line with ABN AMRO One and particularly Grant Wharington's Skandia initially on station off her weather aft quarter.
WILD OATS XI sailing off Cape Sonnerat. Photo by: Daniel Forster/ Rolex.

Wild Oats XI reached the turning mark between Sydney Heads, 1.9 miles away in just 6 minutes 51 seconds, ahead of her two other 30m rivals, Skandia and Maximus (Charles Brown and Bill Buckley), the latter having chosen the opposite side of the course where they found the wind less strong. The Volvo Open 70s ABN AMRO One and Ichi Ban were in hot pursuit. Once out into the open sea Maximus, the highest rated boat in this year's Rolex Sydney Hobart, slowed when she suffered a problem with her jib halyard resulting in a crewman being hoisted promptly to the masthead to resolve the issue. The Kiwi maxi quickly recovered and by 1700 had overhauled Grant Wharington's Skandia.

Further back in the fleet, Geoff Ross' brand new 55 footer Yendys was leading the charge on the water between the 50-footers, a mile ahead of arch-rival Stephen Ainsworth's 60ft Loki at 1700. In the warm-up races prior to this year's Rolex Sydney Hobart, Yendys had proved to be the weaker boat in lighter winds. Shortly before leaving the dock this morning, owner Geoff Ross reckoned this was only a temporary teething problem. "I think this boat is actually quite good in light air, we're just figuring out how to make her go, so we're not too bothered by that thought. Occupying our mind is making sure we are in the right spot at the right time."

In the fight between the Cookson 50s, Ray Roberts' Quantum Racing, sailing against the bigger boats in IRC Division 0 was only a mile ahead of Michael Hiatt's Living Doll in Division 1, the latter racing with her canting keel fixed to improve her rating.
WILD OATS XI sailing off Tasman Island. Photo by: Carlo Borlenghi/ Rolex.

This morning Quantum Racing's star crew American Dee Smith was anticipating a "cold, wet and very upwind" Rolex Sydney Hobart. "It'll be big waves on the first day and hopefully calming down a bit. It is mostly upwind and it should be a big boat race but you never know until you get there." The Cookson 50 has a canting keel but differs from the canting keel Wild Oats XI and the Volvo Open 70s as she has no dagger board or forward rudder to prevent leeway. Instead she has a less efficient trim tab on the trailing edge of her keel; because of this Smith feels she is not the ideal upwind machine. "If it is straight upwind we are probably not as good; if we can get cracked off and use the stability of the canting keel we'll be fine. If we have to tack a lot we make a lot of leeway, so it is hard if we have to go straight upwind."

At 1700 Chris Bull's Jazz was following ABN AMRO and the two Volvo 60s Getaway-CMC Markets and DHL, as the most easterly boat within her size range. Contrary to Dee Smith's view, Bull said he was looking forward to a passage south to Hobart that would be "unusual in that we don't expect to get particularly wet and cold. It will be a tough race as usual tactically. It just won't be quite as tough as usual in terms of the severity of the weather."

Bull's team is yet another hoping that the wind will free up a bit, as their J/145 is better in reaching rather than upwind conditions. "We are going to sail the boat well in any condition and it is not going to be all upwind. There will quite a bit of upwind, but then you don't enter the Hobart race with any expectation other than that," said Bull.

While the start may have been a nice summer day, with moderate breeze and a slight chop off Sydney Heads, tonight's conditions are forecast to be more brutal. A low is residing out in the middle of the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand and yesterday contained 40 knot winds, from the south-southwest - upwind for the Rolex Sydney Hobart boats.

As Barry Hanstrum, Regional Director, NSW of Australian Bureau of Meteorology imparted this morning: "It is pretty clear that the toughest of the sailing conditions will happen tonight in the waters off the Illawarra coast where a 3-4m swell generated by the low that is moving away from Tasmania, will move up the NSW coast. At the same time the southwest wind will be at its peak - around 20 knots. So if we combine the 3-4m swell wave with a 1-2m sea, the significant wave height tonight around Wollongong will be around 5m. So obviously it will be large seas and a fairly stiff headwind for the fleet overnight tonight."

Fortunately after tonight the conditions are set to become much more benign and by the end of the week a high pressure system will move over Tasmania and this may allow the smaller boats the chance for a northeasterly tail wind to give them a fast run home. However given the conditions for the front runners, no one is expecting records to fall in this Rolex Sydney Hobart, as they did last year.

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