Sydney Hobart: Attracting attention like no other annual event
Published on December 17th, 2013
Over the past 68 years, the 628nm Rolex Sydney Hobart Race has become an icon of Australia’s summer sport, ranking in public interest with such national events as the Melbourne Cup horse race, the Australian Open tennis and the cricket tests between Australia and England.
People who sail the race often say the first and last days are the most exciting. The race start on December 26 on Sydney Harbour attracts hundreds of spectator craft and hundreds of thousands of people lining the shore as helicopters buzz above the fleet, filming for TV around the world.
Among the sights will be the Robert Oatley’s 100-ft Reichel Pugh designed Wild Oats XI, a 6-time line honors winner. In 2012 she broke her own race record, which now stands at 1 day, 18 hours, 23 minutes 12 seconds and won the race overall. It was only the second time the super maxi had achieved this historic treble and the only boat to do so twice in the race’s history.
But it won’t just be her size which gets her noticed. The guys on Wild Oats XI call her the Swiss Army Knife these days – and fair enough – lately she has added so many foils and blades, thrusting out at all angles from her narrow steel-grey hull, she looks like some kid has had a great time pulling all the do-dahs out of a penknife at once.
When she is sitting in the water, Wild Oats XI looks pure greyhound, but suspended under the giant travel lift at her home base in Woolwich, she is almost insect like, skinny legs akimbo.
The retractable bow centreboard is still there from last year, as are the twin daggerboards angling out on either side just ahead of the mast, and the tiny winglets on the giant bulb hanging from her slender canting keel.
Like the other small foils, the stabiliser is retractable, sitting in a sheath across the interior of the hull. It is only when Wild Oats XI gets above 20 knots downwind that the stabiliser will be put into play on one side or the other, depending whether she is on port or starboard gybe.
“Last year we had very tricky seas,” skipper Mark Richards says of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, “so we were doing a lot of nose diving.
“We started off looking at a foil in the bow to lift the bow up, but as it evolved, it moved further and further back.
“They’ve been doing something similar in Europe this year, and what we have come up with has worked out really well,” he says.
Richards says that as well as adding to the boat’s stability at high speed, the narrow aerofoil shaped stabiliser generates some 8 tonnes of lift, making the Rolex Sydney Hobart record-holding super maxi much faster downwind in heavy conditions.
Wild Oats XI will also gain a lot of extra stability from her towering new, hi-tech, mast. At around 200 kilos lighter than the old mast, that is a huge reduction in weight swaying around aloft. Richards says that the mast issues are now behind them and its New Zealand maker is adamant all the problems have been solved.
There is a penalty, of course. There is never a free lunch in ocean racing and the new stabiliser blows Wild Oats XI’s rating through the roof. She will need to finish a long way ahead of Perpetual LOYAL to beat her on handicap, or anyone else for that matter.
But let’s face it, with three other super maxis, a clutch of blindingly fast V70s and the all-new, completely unknown quantity in the 80 foot Beau Geste in the annual 628 nautical mile race, it is all about line honours for Richards and owner Bob Oatley.
Wild Oats XI will need every ounce of extra speed she can find in heavy downwind running if she is to beat her chief rival, Perpetual LOYAL. In lighter northerlies and upwind into a brisk southerly the lean, narrow Wild Oats XI has a distinct advantage, but in a big nor-easter the wider, more powerful Perpetual LOYAL will shine, as will the muscular V70s.
“All the new boats are Volvo oriented,” Richards says, super-fast downwind, but at the cost of upwind performance.
“Wild Oats XI is designed for VMG,” Richards says, because a typical Rolex Sydney Hobart throws at least one big southerly at the fleet.
“We haven’t had a proper nor’ east race since 1999,” when the V60 Nokia broke the race record in perfect running conditions. Although, in 2001, the V60 Assa Abloy also took line honours in tight reaching conditions.
“Most Hobarts it is 50/50; northerlies and southerlies. We have the two most prominent conditions covered.”
“It’s all going to come down to the conditions we get,” Richard says, ”and avoiding crew errors,” where a lost hour can cost 20 or 30 nautical miles, or, at worst, bring these highly strung beasts to a crashing halt mid ocean.
And despite the Olympic, Volvo Ocean Race and America’s Cup star-studded crews on his rivals, Richards believes that his own crew gives him a real edge: “We’ve been together a long time – nine years – and we read each other like a book,” he says.
“You can bring out the big names but team work takes time. There’s no bullshit on our boat, everyone knows his job.”
A different kind of stabiliser, you could call it.
By Jim Gale, RSHYR Media