Rolex Sydney to Hobart: super maxi yacht showdown

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Photo: Carlo Borlenghi

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December 26, 2005 Ocean racing is one of the most exciting and dangerous sports yet conceived by man, and with one of the sport’s flagship events now 21 hours old, we are witnessing one of the most public yacht races ever staged. Normally, ocean racing is not a spectator event, but thanks to an array of technologies, the entire world can watch the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race via the Internet. In addition to the official race web site’s yacht tracker functionality, this year it is possible to watch via Google’s new 3D interface to the planet, Google Earth (Google Earth combines satellite imagery with a model that can be zoomed, spun and tilted - instructions here), with yacht positions and standings updated every ten minutes. Though weather forecasts suggested perfect weather for the 90-plus-foot maxis, the race record of 1 day, 19 hours and 48 minutes now appears safe as light overnight winds have seen the leading supermaxis fall more than 50 km behind schedule to take the record. As expected, the two new Reichel/Pugh 98-footers, Alfa Romeo and Wild Oats XI are leading the race with Wild Oats now 12 nautical miles clear of Alfa Romeo after 21 hours of sailing. Live odds for the race can be found here.

We've already covered the incredible technologies employed by Alfa Romeo and Wild Oats in this story about the design of the 98-footers.

The race record was set by the Volvo 60 Nokia on a fast downwind race in 1999, in a time of 1 day, 19 hours and 48 minutes.

An uncharacteristically benign weather forecast promises a fast Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race this year, and looks set to favour the five 90-plus-foot Maxi yachts. Sean Langman, skipper of the 92-foot AAPT, was bursting with excitement at the prospect of a downwind sleigh ride to Hobart when the fleet departs Sydney on Boxing Day. "There is a fantastic opportunity for the treble with this forecast. The treble of winning line honours, handicap and the race record, which we haven't seen for some time."

Sean Langman said: "The record is definitely gone, even with the wind against us up the Derwent [the river that leads to the finish in Hobart]. "But as we've seen in the Volvo Ocean Race, these canting keel boats can get into trouble downwind as well. So even though it looks good for them, you still don't hand over the trophy to them quite yet."

Like most pundits watching the build-up to this race, Langman marks out the two new Reichel/Pugh 98-footers, Alfa Romeo and Wild Oats XI, as the clear favourites for reaching Hobart first. "I feel excited for Neville and Ricco [Neville Crichton and Mark Richards, skippers of Alfa and Oats respectively], but we'll be doing our best to hang on." Langman is sailing the boat which, as Nicorette, won a rough and windy race to Hobart a year ago after the biggest Maxis fell by the wayside, and he is hoping to steal the thunder of the race favourites this year.

The best hope of beating the favourites would have been for a typical dose of Rolex Sydney Hobart weather to give the fleet a severe beating, with strong southerly winds and huge seas barring the way to Tasmania. But in his forecast today, Barry Hanstrum from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology held out little chance of that happening. "Conditions this year look very much more favourable.

In contrast to last year, when strong southerly gales battered the fleet, weather conditions this year look more favourable for the competitors. Winds on Boxing Day morning will be light, 5-10 knots from the south-east. But winds will slip around during the night to the north, so that by late Tuesday on the southern New South Wales coast, there may be 20 knots northerlies perhaps increasing to 20 to 30 knots."

Wild Oats skipper Mark Richards was encouraged by the forecast, but no more than that. "The forecast sounds fantastic but we've heard that before. Things can change overnight." Richards will nevertheless draw more comfort from the forecast than most, as Wild Oats has been very late to the water, and is one of the least prepared big boats. Owner Bob Oatley and the crew have made some major changes to the boat in the final week before the race, and a typical Rolex Sydney Hobart would not have been a good place to test these changes.

In response to Neville Crichton's recent switch to a tungsten bulb for the keel of Alfa Romeo, Wild Oats have been scrabbling around for this extremely dense - but also very rare and expensive - metal to add to their predominantly lead bulb. Richards wouldn't say how much of the keel was now made up of tungsten, but joked: "I know for a fact that there's no more in Australia!" He said they had also changed the front rudder, altered the draft of the boat and changed the weight.

By contrast, Crichton's crew have been much more settled, with Alfa Romeo launched six months ago. "The boat has done about 5,000 sea miles since we put it in the water," said the owner/skipper, who is prepared for a war with the elements despite the kind forecast. "We have crash helmets and visors for the drivers, and we think that's pretty important." One of the drivers will be Ben Ainslie, one of the most accomplished sailors in Olympic history.

The British sailor flew into Sydney last night from Auckland, where he has been training with the New Zealand America's Cup team. He has never set foot on Alfa Romeo, but Crichton was not concerned at his lack of experience. "He's got a little bit of a track record. He's got two gold medals, won five world championships, he's been sailing the number 2 boat for New Zealand. He's the only crew member that hasn't sailed on the boat, but I think he'll be teaching us things, not us teaching him. He's a very competent sailor and seaman."

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