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Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race

Wild Oats wins match race out of Sydney Harbour

Wild Oats led Alfa Romeo by less than two boat lengths

lundi 26 décembre 2005Redaction SSS [Source RP]

Wild Oats XI won the race out of Sydney Heads this afternoon, in a picture-perfect start to the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. Skipper Mark Richards is known for his strong starting and match race abilities, and crossed the pin end of the line slightly earlier than the bookies’ favourite for line honours, Neville Crichton’s Alfa Romeo. These two were neck and neck on their way out of the Harbour, with the massed spectator fleet dutifully staying outside the runway marked out by numerous security launches and marker buoys. At the first Rolex mark through the famous entrance to the harbour, Wild Oats led Alfa Romeo by less than two boat lengths.

It was a rapid exit from Sydney harbour for the leading boats, and the improvements in big boat technology these past two years could be measured by the size of the gap back to the other three maxis in this race. Skandia was already some way behind the two Reichel/Pugh boats, even after just the first 10 minutes that it took to break out into the Pacific Ocean. Not far behind was AAPT, the 92-footer which last year won line honours in this race in her former guise of Nicorette. Konica Minolta had made a second row start off the line and so she was already some way behind her maxi rivals by the first mark.

As the forecasters had predicted, east to southeasterly breezes of about 8 to 10 knots brought a gentle start to this year’s race. The larger yachts made majestic progress down the New South Wales coast, sailing with sheets slightly cracked on port tack, with the leaders achieving speeds in excess of 15 knots. Grant Wharington made an early call for a Code 0 headsail which took Skandia flying past a Bondi Beach packed with Boxing Day sunbathers, while the two leaders held to a more seaward course about two miles offshore. Gradually Alfa Romeo got back on level terms with Wild Oats and had taken up a narrow lead two hours after the start. At this early stage, all three leading maxis were well ahead of record Record #sailingrecord pace set by the Volvo 60 Nokia six years ago.

Meanwhile Sean Langman appeared to be suffering technical problems on AAPT, with Konica Minolta leaping past and relegating Langman to back of the maxi pack. It wasn’t clear what the problem was, but AAPT is one yacht that has been in a big rush to make the start, with Langman making some major modifications in the final week leading up to the race start.

Before the start today, Langman admitted he would like to have had more time to get his chartered yacht ready for the big race. "Preparation is king, and Neville [Crichton] has certainly put in the best preparation. But we’re in good shape." When Langman chartered the yacht from last year’s winning skipper Ludde Ingvall, he immediately set about some big changes. In addition to building a taller mast, he also opted to move the twin rudders 2 metres further forward in the boat to try to correct a steering imbalance. Despite the rush, he is pleased with the result. "The boat is a lot more balanced now," said Langman. "It’s doing about 0.6 to 0.8 upwind. I know moving the rudders by 2 metres sounds a lot, but for a boat this size it’s really not that big a change."

At least the predominantly downwind conditions shouldn’t overly stress the leading boats in quite the way that last year’s southerly winds did. This year the greater threat to the maxis might be lurking below the surface. Langman believes the strong currents off the New South Wales coast might have swept some sunfish into their path. "Looking at the current flowing out there, it looks like there’s been a northerly push for some time. We’ve been seeing a lot of sunfish off the coast of Sydney that we normally see around Green Cape. So I reckon there is a little army out there waiting for us."

True enough, as AAPT passed Botany Bay this afternoon, she came within metres of one of these docile but enormous creatures. With some sunfish weighing up to 750kg, neither boat nor fish profits from a collision. And with their computer-guided forward rudders, Alfa Romeo and Wild Oats would seem particularly vulnerable to such a collision, although Mark Richards denied this. "These are solid carbon fibre rudders which are very heavy but virtually unbreakable. They’re as strong as steel. So I feel sorry for those poor old sunfish out there. They might be waiting for us, but I think we’ll be ready when they arrive. We hit one the other day when we were traveling at 20 knots, and we cut the thing in half. They’re almost like a knife for these poor things - which is a shame - but you just can’t see them."

One of the great legends of the race, John Bennetto who died in Hobart just a few days ago, was remembered in the race today. At the start, Marion Cooper, commodore of the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, dropped a white rose into the harbour in honour of Bennetto, a veteran of 44 Rolex Sydney Hobarts and one of the great characters of the race. At the seaward mark the crew of John’s boat, Quest, also cast a wreath into the sea as they turned for home.

Last out of Sydney Heads was the diminutive 32-foot cruiser Gillawa. Skipper David Kent took more than a week to reach Hobart last year, and by the time he arrived most competitors had already partied and flown back to Sydney. Undaunted, he is back for another crack at the race and he doesn’t mind if he finishes last across the line for a second year. It is the likes of John Bennetto and David Kent that make the Rolex Sydney Hobart more than just another yacht race.

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