First back-to-back line honors win in 42 years

To the relief of her 23 exhausted crew and owner Bob Oatley, this evening Wild Oats XI gybed her way under spinnaker in the dark up Hobart's Derwent River to secure her second consecutive line honors win in the Rolex Sydney Hobart, the first back-to-back win in the race since Peter Warner's Fife-designed Astor, in 1963-4. The sleek silver-hulled 30m super maxi gingerly motored into Hobart's Constitution Dock to the rapturous cheers of the large and welcoming crowds.

Having passed the Derwent River's Iron Pot light at dusk, Wild Oats XI crossed the finish line at Castray Esplanade in Hobart at 21:52:33 making her elapsed time for the 628 mile course 2 days 8 hours 52 minutes and 33 seconds, more than 14 hours slower than their record time in last year's Rolex Sydney Hobart when they scored the coveted race triple of line honors, Tattersall's Cup handicap win, and record time.
SKANDIA, Grant Wharington. Photo by: Daniel Forster/ Rolex.

The slower time was hardly surprising given the severe upwind conditions experienced in this year's race that  caused nine retirements from the 78 initial starters, including two dismastings and one sinking.

Upon his arrival, Wild Oats skipper Mark 'Ricco' Richards praised his crew that included round the world navigator Adrienne Cahalan and former America's Cup skipper Iain Murray: "The last couple of days these guys have been through some really tough conditions. I'm proud to have been involved in such a tough race with such a great group of people and I'd like to thank all guys for being with me on such a great race."

After a speedy run out of Sydney Harbor when their boat speed had touched 23 knots, for Wild Oats XI the most critical decision was made on the grueling first night at sea when they chose to leave ABN AMRO One to her offshore strategy, sailing in more wind and more current, but also in considerably worse sea. While the Volvo Ocean Race winner was being battered by 30-35 knot winds, instead they headed towards the calmer waters inshore where it was blowing 25 knots.

Richards explained: "We backed off a lot. I was under strict instructions from Bob [Oatley] to back off when we had to. He only told me about 500 times! There was a lot of set offshore and you can get a big gain by being there normally, but with a lot of wind and the sea state being that rough, we just didn't want to be out there. So we opted to go inshore and stay out of the current which meant staying out of the big waves and just to look after the boat for the night."

At the time this tactic was causing a lot of discussion on board, for offshore Mike Sanderson's Volvo Ocean Race winner, ABN AMRO One, looked to have made the right tactical move, briefly taking the lead. But then ABN's mast broke. As navigator Adrienne Cahalan puts it: "It was only ABN who stayed out there and we let them go. Everyone else was inshore. They had 30 knots out there and big seas and you just know that surviving that type of seas without running backs is pretty tough."

The only damage Wild Oats suffered was on that first night when they blew out their heavy #1 head sail. "We had two guys working 12 hours non-stop all night to repair that sail and we sailed with that sail pretty much all afternoon today," said Richards.

The conditions also took its toll on the crew. "It was pretty tough," continued Richards. "These boats are powerful and we had some big seas. Two guys got washed against stanchions pretty badly, which you have to be careful of - it's just sailing unfortunately."
ICHI BAN. Photo by: Daniel Forster/ Rolex.

Cahalan admitted that the seaway, as they crossed Bass Strait, had not been pleasant: "I had to come on deck to get some fresh air once or twice. People get very tired because you are sitting on the rail all the time and it was very, very cold and that always takes it out of you."

After ABN AMRO's dismasting, Wild Oats led the fleet for the remainder of the race, although it was far from plain sailing. A game of snakes and ladders developed between the remaining line honors contenders. Wild Oats had extended her lead to 40 miles only to spend four hours becalmed to the north of Flinders Island. Fortunately Cahalan had seen this coming and they had been able to cover Skandia and Ichi Ban before they were becalmed.

This allowed Grant Wharington's Skandia to close to within five miles of her again. "We were so close, within 5-6 miles of each other, that a bad sail change could make the difference - we had to make sure we were in the same patch of water as them," said Cahalan.

However attrition once again took its toll on their closest competitor. "We could see Skandia all day yesterday, they were quite a few miles behind us," said Richards. "In the morning they were fairly close but then they clearly had an issue and they just slowly slipped behind us, so we were pretty comfortable."

Over the course of Thursday, Wild Oats slowly extended. Freeing up from the wind as she rounded Tasman Island, the south southeasterly breeze held, allowing her to make a fast passage across Storm Bay. Only as she passed the Iron Pot light and entered the Derwent River leading up to Hobart was she able to hoist a spinnaker for the first time during this race.

On his boat's arrival in Hobart, Wild Oats XI's owner Bob Oatley was ecstatic. "I feel like a young man again. 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 is off tomorrow for the return trip to Sydney to make the start of the Pittwater to Coffs Harbor Race. She will then be loaded back on to a ship and will return to Europe to compete in races in the Mediterranean next season.

While during her last day at sea Wild Oats was not being seriously threatened, this was far from the case in the fight for second place between Skandia and Matt Allen's 70 footer, Ichi Ban. Following the breakage of Skandia's forward daggerboard on Wednesday afternoon, a day later approaching Tasman Island on the wind and in a building breeze, Ichi Ban was finally able to overhaul her larger rival.

As Grant Wharington put it: "They went from being 12 miles behind us to just sailing past us like we were going backwards, like we were sailing a 40 footer. We had a #4 jib, like a storm jib, and a reef in the main and they had full mainsail and a full-sized jib and they just went past us like we were sailing in a beach ball."

In the end, Ichi Ban managed to hold on to second place finishing at 01:42 local time, almost four hours after Wild Oats. She was followed just 16 minutes later by Skandia, who had been closing continuously since they had freed up rounding Tasman Island. "They had seven miles on us at Tasman Island and we finished less than two miles behind them. Once we were going downwind again and didn't need the daggerboard, we were fine," said Wharington.

Ichi Ban skipper Matt Allen said when he left Sydney on Boxing Day he hadn't imagined they might be second home into Hobart. "Getting Skandia late this afternoon was good - they were a bit handicapped without their forward rudder. Everyone was really focused and we kept on changing sails and just kept working at it. The boys did a great job. And it is great to be so close also to Wild Oats. We're ecstatic. It's all eyes now on the weather to see how the whole handicap situation plays out."

Like Wild Oats, Ichi Ban had been more conservative tactically on the first night staying inshore. Allen said that at the time they had had their own issues to deal with such as a broken check stay and breaking their two headsail halyards, which they replaced. In any event Allen was pleased with their tactics. "The coast of New South Wales, when you get that big current heading south against the southerly breeze, is the most diabolical place in the world."

While Wharington said he considered throwing in the towel when Skandia's board broke, he was pleased he didn't as getting to Hobart, even in third place, is a result. "It is just one of those things. Unfortunately there are a hundred things on a boat that can break. I suppose it is not the end of the world, but when you can't be competitive the average guys might pull the pin and go home. That is the great thing about this race - you have to finish." Aside from the broken board, Skandia arrived in good shape and he is pleased with the extensive modifications he has made to the boat's keel and her new stern.

Wharington is also impressed with their time. "I suppose we finished here not much outside the old record and we've been upwind the whole way and we put a spinnaker on for the first time about four miles from the finish line."

The next finisher is expected to be Geoff Ross' new Yendys late morning today. Sixty-six boats remain racing.

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