SOLAS Big Boat Challenge provides early test for Rolex Sydney Hobart Race

Published on December 9th, 2014

Sydney, Australia (December 9, 2014) – A large spectator fleet watched Bob Oatley’s 100 foot maxi Wild Oats XI declare that Sydney Harbour is still her back yard, the brand new, revolutionary American upstart, Comanche notwithstanding.

Wild Oats XI sliced across the finish line beside Fort Denison 1 minute 22 seconds ahead of Comanche for yet another line honours victory in the annual SOLAS Big Boat Challenge, having led the fleet for much of the race.

Fellow Sydneysider Matt Allen steered his 60 foot Ichi Ban fifth across the line, behind Black Jack and Perpetual Loyal to win the race on handicap. Nicholas Bartels’ Terra Firma won the PHS class.

Skipper Mark Richards steered Wild Oats XI to a perfect start and quickly accelerated ahead until a fouled first spinnaker set allowed Comanche and Perpetual Loyal to ease past her on the approach to the first mark, with Peter Harburg’s blisteringly fast Volvo 70 Black Jack making up the quadrella.

The four boats weaved across the Harbour under spinnaker as they raced towards the first rounding of Fort Denison. As the giant yachts furled their spinnakers to beat around the fort, Wild Oats XI and Comanche were neck and neck. A daring cut between the Australian boat and the Pinchgut rocks gave the Americans the edge, until Wild Oats XI reasserted herself, clawing her way to a lead she would not relinquish again.

With the Rolex Sydney Hobart just weeks away the win will be a big confidence boost for Oatley, Richards and the crack crew aboard Wild Oats XI. She has dominated the ocean classic since her triple record breaking/line honours/overall winner triumph of 2005, a feat she repeated in 2012, but 2014 is shaping up as her greatest challenge yet.

Despite annual modifications and upgrades nine years is a venerable age for a racing yacht, and now she must not only beat arch rival Perpetual Loyal, she must outrun the just launched Comanche and Ragamuffin 100.

The light conditions no doubt helped the cause of the pencil thin Wild Oats XI, as did the tight course. The new generation 100 foot maxis are powerful, wide beamed beasts, and this was not a day for pushing a wide hull through the water.

Bob Oatley will enjoy today’s win, but he will be well aware that the winds will be stronger offshore, the seas bigger and more suited to the big power hitters than the harbour. And each week the crew on Comanche will learn more and more about their brand new, radical boat and how to sail her.

“We were very impressed with Comanche,” Richards conceded after the race. “The conditions suited us rather than her. They went upwind very well. They pointed very high. “

With her huge beam Comanche should be fast downwind, but in an essentially upwind and close hauled race today she gave little away to Wild Oats XI.

“We were very pleased with how the boat went upwind,” Comanche’s skipper Ken Read said. “Every day we sail this boat we learn a huge amount. That is why you will see us out practicing so much before Boxing Day. We could not have been happier with how Comanche went. She was designed to do exactly the opposite of what we had today.”

“This boat is a beast. Do we know how it will handle (the tough conditions off the New South Wales coast and Bass Strait), will it stay in one piece? We have no idea.”

It was a disappointing day for Perpetual Loyal. Another big, beamy beast, she matched Wild Oats XI and Comanche early on for boat speed, but soon lost her way. “We’re improving though,” quipped skipper Anthony Bell. “Last year we shredded a spinnaker. This year we just tied it up in knots.”

While the big boats are all focussed on line honours, Matt Allen’s Ichi Ban is all about winning the Rolex Sydney Hobart outright, on handicap. Launched just weeks before last year’s race the 60 footer has undergone a number of modifications recently. “We’ve seen a big improvement in performance,” Allen said.

He was delighted with how fast the boat went, giving little away to the bigger, canting keeled Black Jack all day.

The win will be a real shot in the arm for team Ichi Ban, though like Wild Oats XI, they too know that the real challenge lies ahead. Winning the Rolex Sydney Hobart is an even bigger challenge than winning line honours.

ResultsEvent details

Report by Jim Gale. Photo by Andrea Francolini. Photos by Andrea Francolini. Video by Boats on TV.

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