|SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA-(14-11-2006) A fleet of 85 yachts has been nominated for the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race including the defending line and handicap winner, and race record holder, Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats XI, which is out to rewrite history with a back to back line honours win.
With less than two weeks to prepare for last year’s Boxing Day bluewater classic, Bob Oatley’s canting keel 30m maxi made an unprecedented debut in ocean racing - setting a new race record and winning the JH Illingworth Trophy for line honours and the Tattersalls Cup for first place overall.
This year Wild Oats is preparing to defend her turf against Grant Wharington’s turbo charged Skandia, a former line honours winner, and New Zealand based Charles St Clair Brown and Bill Buckley’s Maximus, making its Hobart debut, and become the first yacht since Astor in 1964 to achieve consecutive wins over the line.
For the first time in the event’s history, the 30m maxis will go head to head with two Volvo 70s which are hoping for a taste of the conditions for which the Tasman Sea and Bass Strait are renowned.
Bass Strait, in particular, has a dangerous personality. It can be dead calm or, if the strong winds collide with the shallow water, it can create a steep and difficult sea.
For the 30 metre maxis, due to their waterline length they literally become airborne as they launch off waves, putting enormous pressure on the boat, equipment and the crew as they crash back down to earth, or straight into the face of the next wave.
The Volvos however, are right at home in those types of seas, having been built to contest the Volvo Ocean Race which has seen them take on some of the world’s toughest oceans as they circumnavigate the globe.
“In tough conditions the Volvo 70s are going to be hard to beat, we are going to seriously be on our toes,” admits Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards.
“It’s going to be much tougher defending than being the underdog,” he adds.
New Zealand businessman Charles St Clair Brown acknowledges they are campaigning Maximus on a shoestring budget and can’t optimise for varying conditions to the same degree, or employ a professional crew, but he says the boat will be competitive.
He admits it’s going to be an uphill battle this year however, with both ends of the weather spectrum covered off by his 30m counterparts and the Volvo 70s.
“If it’s light, clearly Wild Oats XI is the favourite as she’s fully optimised for light winds and flat water, plus she’s got something to protect. If the winds are strong and the seas steep, ABN AMRO in particular has proven she is incredibly fast, so all conditions are covered off with specialist boats.
“We are by no means in a favoured position but it’s still going to be a close battle and will largely come down to tactics,” says St Clair Brown, a four-time Hobart campaigner with previous boats.
Unlike his fellow 30 metre maxi owners, Victorian skipper Grant Wharington doesn’t believe the Volvo 70s pose a major threat.
“If it’s a race like ’99 [when the Volvo 60 Nokia smashed the previous race record] then the Volvos will be competitive but if it’s upwind and hard pressed reaching, a normal Hobart Race in other words, I don’t believe they will keep pace with the 30 metre boats.
“Wild Oats XI will be the boat to beat, they are faster downwind and have more sail area,” Wharington believes.
He and his designer, Don Jones, have been working hard to make the boat stronger and have altered the boat to improve downwind performance including taking some lead off the bulb, shortening the bow and adding a different shaped 8 metre stern section. Skandia is in the final stages of her re-fit and is due to be re-launched in Melbourne in a week’s time.
“It’s a very different boat to last year,” says Wharington. “During the latest round of changes we have focused on strengthening everything on the boat. We are probably due for a tough Rolex Sydney Hobart,” he adds.
ABN AMRO will still be a worthy opponent for Wild Oats XI, Skandia and Maximus with Mike Sanderson, who has just been named ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year following his overall win in the 2006/6 Volvo Ocean Race, and his experienced crew of Volvo Race and America’s Cup sailors pushing the boat to the limit over the 628 nautical mile Hobart course.
Australia’s only modified Volvo 70 Ichi Ban, now referred to as a Jones 70, will be skippered by Matt Allen. This boat has undergone a full makeover since she contested the 2005/6 VOR but hasn’t yet had a chance to sail in her new configuration against any of her line honours rivals.
The first opportunity will be the CYCA’s Big Boat Challenge on Sydney Harbour on Tuesday 12 December and Rolex Trophy Rating Series off Sydney Heads from Thursday 14 to Sunday 17 December.
But with both ABN AMRO and Maximus not due into Sydney until two weeks before the big race, then having to be reassembled and everything re-tested following their transportation by ship from Malta, the five line honours contenders may not jump into the ring together until Boxing Day.
With the IRC rule appearing to have penalised yachts with canting keels and stored power in the 2006 ratings, the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart line honours contenders could be sailing their own race within a race this year while the rest of the fleet hunt the ultimate prize amongst sailors, the Tattersall’s Cup.
One of the many vintage boats racing under IRC handicap in the 86 boat fleet could be successful in claiming the top trophy. Three veteran former overall winners, Ray White Koomooloo (1968), Love & War (1974 & 1978) and Illusion (1988), will join the 1995 winner Terra Firma (Nicholas Bartels) and the 1996 and 2000 winner Ausmaid, skippered by current owner Trevor Taylor from Western Australia.
The overall winner could come from one of the more modern designs, Michael Hiatt’s Victorian Corby 49 Flirt, the two Cookson 50’s Living Doll and Quantum Racing, Geoff Ross’ latest Reichel/Pugh 55 Yendys, built in China and due to be launched in Sydney in a fortnight, or Stephen Ainsworth’s Reichel/Pugh Loki boasting a stand out performance at Hamilton Island Race Week this year and some of Australia’s best in their crew line up.
Every Australian state as well as the ACT is represented in this year’s fleet. Victoria is putting up the strongest challenge with 16 entries from that state, including the youngest skipper, 23 year old Chris Lewin sailing his second Rolex Sydney Hobart with the Sydney 38 Another Challenge.
Western Australia has put forward two entries, Tasmania three and Queensland four while Geoff Boettcher’s Hardys Secret Mens Business will be the sole South Australian entry.
The ACT will be proudly represented by David Kent’s Gillawa, which finished last in the fleet in 2004 and 2005 and is back to try and make it to Hobart in time to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
He could have some company at sea if he doesn’t reach Hobart by 31 December. The oldest and smallest boat entered, Maluka, a 74-year-old, gaff-rigged, wooden boat that is being restored in Sydney to its original by high profile ocean racing yachtsman Sean Langman, is expected to be one of the last to finish, a different experience for its skipper who hasn’t finished out of the top five across the line for many years.
Internationally Canada (Kinetic, David Sutcliffe), the Netherlands (ABN AMRO) and Italy (DSK Comifin, Danilo Salsi) will be represented for the first time in many years.
New Zealand did have two entries but following the withdrawal of Phil Chisholm’s Compass Point, Maximus is the sole NZ representative.
Racing for the United Kingdom is Chris Bull’s Jazz, Michele Colenso’s Capriccio of Rhu, which is undertaking a world circumnavigation and sailing south on Boxing Day to raise awareness of breast cancer, something her owner is battling, and a former BT yacht called Adventure which will be crewed by members of the British Army’s Royal Signals A Corps.
The 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will be a race of milestones amongst the backbone of the event, those who enter year after year for the challenge of testing themselves against the best, and worst, Mother Nature has to offer.
Come Boxing day, Tuesday 26 December 2006, five times overall winner of Rolex Sydney Hobart, Trygve Halvorsen, will fire the 10 minute warning signal at 1250 hours as the skippers and crew try to settle their nerves.
At 1255 hours, John Powell from South Australia, who sailed in the 1948 and 1950 Sydney Hobarts, winning the latter as a crewman aboard Nerida, will fire the 5 minute warning signal as the tacticians cement their start plan and the for’ard hands take up their position on the bow as the fleet starts jostling.
Finally, at 1300 hours (1.00pm), ninety year old 1947 Sydney Hobart crewman Dennis Mason, cheered on by thousands of spectators, will fire the cannon which will send the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race fleet on their way south for the 62nd time.