December 19, 2005 When Sydney businessman Neville Crichton built Alfa Romeo I a few years ago, the advanced design made the world take notice – the remarkable yacht dominated international ocean racing for 18 months and won an incredible 74 consecutive races, including every major ocean event – a yachting grand slam the likes of which has never been seen before and which is unlikely to be repeated. Wealthy yachtsmen the world recognised the advantages of running with the very latest technology and the “arms race” has resulted in a flotilla of new advanced super maxis currently preparing for the Rolex Sydney to Hobart yacht race. When they set off on Boxing Day, the world will be treated to a spectacle of technological wonder but skipper Neville Crichton believes that the deciding factor in which boat takes line honours will not be technology, but traditional sailing skills.
"Alfa Romeo may be the fastest, most technically advanced yacht ever to bid for a race win, but the technology will be worth nothing if the crew don't do their jobs right or if we are not spot on with our navigation and analysis of the weather," says the winner of the 2002 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Race. "In fact sailing 'Alfa Romeo' is an even greater test of traditional sailing skills simply because we will be going so much faster than other yachts. There is less time to think, less time to plan and if we do make a mistake the effects of that mistake can have a much greater effect on our overall performance, whether it is being miles of course or breaking something that would not be a worry in a normal yacht."
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"This means that, while a new race record may be set, what will separate the line honours winner from the rest of the field will not be the technology, it will be what it has always been, the winner will be the best sailor," says Crichton.
The races held before the Sydney to Hobart have shown that the newest yacht does not always take line honours. Indeed, the most consistent winner has been the yacht - Alfa Romeo - that has put the most time into training and honing sailing skills.
Neville Crichton has been training his crew hard for nearly six months prior to the race, learning how to handle the new yacht, how to maximize its technical advantages, such as the light weight, the canting keel and the twin rudders.
"The technology means 'Alfa Romeo' can do much more than just go more quickly," explains Crichton. "The twin rudders mean more maneuverability and the ability, for example, to follow a track through lines of waves that is simply not possible with a conventional yacht. We have had to learn about these new techniques, to learn how 'Alfa Romeo' reacts to inputs from the crew and, of course, know what to do if something goes wrong."
"Anyone who thinks that our crew will have any easy run down to Hobart because of the technology in Alfa Romeo simply does not understand how hard we will be working for the entire race or the pressure that the technology puts on the crew," adds Crichton. "It would be like saying that Michael Schumacher has an easier time driving his Ferrari Formula One car than someone in a Formula Three car, because the F1 car has more power and that he is, somehow, a lesser driver because he is in a more powerful car."
The days of setting off on the Sydney to Hobart by sailing out through the Sydney Heads, turning right and cruising south are long gone. Alfa Romeo will racing at the limit from start to finish and her 21-strong crew will all be working hard throughout the race.
"We have already seen this in the races in and around the harbour," says Crichton. "The crew worked flat out all time, whether they were putting sails back into the chutes, navigating or helming. We also had to plan our actions much more intensely and accurately as we were not only arriving at decision points in the race much more quickly, the speed meant that once committed to a decision, we had to stick to it. The run to Hobart will be no different."
The complexity of 'Alfa Romeo' raises the obvious question of what happens if it goes wrong or breaks.
"There is no doubt that we will be sailing 'Alfa Romeo' right at the limit of her ability," says Crichton, "and that means there is always the risk of something breaking or the technology failing, whether it's a sunfish hitting a rudder, a plastic bag blocking the cooling inlet of the engine or something simply breaking under the strain."
For this reason, Crichton, who has been intimately involved with every aspect of 'Alfa Romeo' from design, through construction to crew training, to ensure that every safety precaution has been taken, but when the technology is this cutting edge, it is not possible to foresee every potential problem.
"Ultimately the skipper is totally responsible for the safety of the yacht and her crew," says Crichton, "and it is something I take very seriously, as I demonstrated in 2000 when I turned around rather than risk the crew to get to the finish line."
This means that the canting keel can be returned to its normal vertical position with battery power, the hydraulically operated winches can be top-cranked by hand if required and on table navigator's table, alongside the computers and satellite receivers, are a traditional brass navigator's compass and pencils, with a sextant sitting in a drawer that makes setting a course by the stars and the sun possible if communication with the GPS satellites is not available.
"This year's Rolex Sydney to Hobart will be one of the most exciting events in its 60 plus year history," says Crichton. "Considering what has gone before, that may be saying something, but this year we have the best boats in the world and the best crews taking part in the toughest test of sailing skill in the world. I am in no doubt that whoever crosses the line first will be best sailor, not the person with the most technology, and, as it always has done, the Rolex Sydney to Hobart will remain the ultimate test of sailing skill, knowledge and expertise, regardless of the size or type of yacht."
A fleet of 86 boats are entered for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. They range in size from the 98-foot maxis - the largest yachts allowed in the race - to a Mumm 30, little more than a 30-foot dinghy. The aims and ambitions of the crew are as diverse as the yachts themselves.
Last year was a rough passage to Hobart, so some teams are hoping the wind might offer them a reprieve this time. The recently-launched super maxis, Alfa Romeo and Wild Oats XI, will certainly be hoping for a fast downwind passage. The last thing they would want is a repeat of the evil winds from the south that, along with a vicious seaway, took a severe toll on the maxis in the 2004 event.
If anything, big upwind conditions might suit the smaller yachts in the 40 to 50-foot range. That is what Ray Roberts, owner of DK46 Quantum Racing, is hoping for. Following his win at the recent King's Cup in Malaysia and a dominant performance at the Rolex Trophy, Roberts must rank as a favourite for handicap honours in the race to Hobart. “I think we'll need the conditions on the nose. If the big maxis get light to moderate conditions then the big boats with their canting keels can really stretch away. But if we get 30 hours of really hard-on-the-nose stuff, we'll have to see if they can hold the boats together. I certainly hope they do, but if the conditions are tough then I think it will certainly suit the smaller boats.”
Theoretically, every one of the 86 yachts has a chance of winning the Tattersalls Cup, the trophy awarded to the handicap winner of the 628-mile race. However the reality is that many are entered simply to complete the passage to Hobart, as that is sufficient reward in itself. But there are some teams hell-bent on winning handicap honours. Along with Quantum Racing, other favourites include Geoff Ross's Yendys, a Judel/Vrolijk 52-footer, Stephen Ainsworth's canting-keeled 60-footer Loki and Michael Hiatt's Living Doll, a Farr-designed Cookson 50 also boasting a canting keel.
Many other yachts have different reasons for taking part in this most challenging of ocean passages. One of the most remarkable stories is that of Berrimilla, a 1977-built sturdy little 33-footer. If Alex Whitworth and Peter Crozier can complete the race, it will mark the end of a remarkable 12-month odyssey around the world. They competed in last year's Rolex Sydney Hobart and then departed for the UK, via the Falkland Islands, in order to compete in the Rolex Fastnet Race. There they were runners-up in the double-handed division, but they had little time to celebrate, as they are now racing to return to Sydney in time for the beginning of the next race to Hobart. Whitworth and Crozier are set to arrive in Rushcutters Bay some time on Tuesday morning, when they can expect a heroes' welcome.
Notable overseas entries include Gerard O'Rourke's Cookson 50, Chieftain from Ireland, Dirk Wiegmann's Beale 45, Conergy from Germany, and Alex Thomson's Hugo Boss from Great Britain. Experienced ocean racer and holder of the singlehanded 24-hour distance record, Thomson has put together a strong team that includes Australian offshore legend Nick Moloney, Olympic medalist skiff sailor Simon Hiscocks and Jeremy Robinson, helmsman of last year's Tattersalls Cup winner, Aera.
When the race starts on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) from Sydney Harbour, the whole of Australia will be watching the massed fleet, and wishing them safe passage to Hobart. 'ALFA ROMEO' TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS
Owner/skipper: Neville Crichton Club: Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron Sail No: NZL 80 Designers: Reichel/Pugh, USA Builders: McConaghy Boats, Sydney, Australia Electrics, electronics, control systemsand programing for the keel, winches and sail trim functions: Olectric Systems Construction: Hull - carbon fibre composite. Keel - steel; Rudders and Mast - carbon fibre; Sails - 3DL carbon/mylar Keel hydraulic ram, hydraulic manifolds Central Coast Hydraulics and Engineering Mast: Southern Spars, Auckland, New Zealand Winches, deck gear: Harken Winches Sails: North Sails, Sydney, Australia LOA: 30.0 metres Beam: 5.2 metres Draft: 5.2 metres Mast: 44 metres (42.2 metres above deck) Sail area: Mainsail: 314 square metres #1 genoa: 208 square metres #1 Asymmetric spinnaker: 805 square metres Weight: 25.5 tonnesView gallery - 46 images