Black Jack 100, originally Alfa Romeo, is a Reichel Pugh design that was launched in 2003 and famously and repeatedly duelled with Wild Oats XI for Sydney Hobart line honours. After several years racing in Europe, the iconic 100-footer has been rebooted and has her sights on the Hobart trophy once more. Crosbie Lorimer reports
“I always told Peter you never want to buy a 100-footer and eventually he ignored me. But now we’re all pretty happy that we’re here!”
The words of Mark Bradford, the easy-going skipper of the recently reminted Black Jack 100 (previously Esimit Europa 2 and originally Neville Crichton’s Alfa Romeo), say something of the trust that underpins the ten-year relationship he has enjoyed with Peter Harburg, owner of a number of yachts carrying the Black Jack name.
The last big jump the Black Jack team made, from Harburg’s original Reichel Pugh 66 to a Volvo 70, was much less significant in terms of resources and expertise required than the leap to a 100-footer has been. The principal difference – costs aside – lies with the size and experience of a team required to crew a winning supermaxi.
In that respect Bradford’s original reservations were not without grounds: “We used to sail those boats with 10-13 crew and we built a very strong team, but now we’ve got a crew of 20 and it’s a different scale of exercise altogether.”
One factor that has gone a long way to addressing that challenge is the calibre of the team that Harburg and Bradford have drawn together to complement the core of Black Jack regulars. The Volvo Ocean Race, America’s Cup and Olympic luminaries aboard Black Jack 100 include Tom Slingsby, Tom Addis and Chris Nicholson.
For any Australian supermaxi owner – and indeed for a good number of international owners – winning line honours in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race is the Mount Everest of yachting ambitions. In 2017 there are potentially five supermaxis vying for that honour, including Black Jack 100’s sistership and multiple Hobart winner Wild Oats XI, and Jim Clark’s powerful Comanche.
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Over recent years the supermaxi arms race to secure the John Illingworth Trophy for first boat to cross the line off Hobart’s Battery Point has focused on powerful rigs and displacement-cheating foils to make the most of the rugged conditions for which this tough ocean classic is renowned.
Surprisingly, however, the average windspeed for this race is only 11 knots, reflecting the often lengthy light air transitions that typically follow southerly fronts, not to mention the capricious Derwent River’s dreaded night-time closedown, and leaving a potential loophole for Harburg’s new boat.
Black Jack 100 is two tonnes lighter than Wild Oats XI – shallower in draught, too, by some 700mm. That offers Harburg’s team an opportunity to exploit those light air punctuations in the 630 miles that lie between Sydney and Hobart, without having to make the costly hull and foil modifications that have seen Wild Oats XI dubbed the ‘Swiss Army knife’ in her quest to stay competitive with her more modern rivals.
Tom Slingsby is clearly impressed with this approach: “Wild Oats is trying to match Comanche a bit more in the breeze and it’s left a pretty big opening for the light air performer. That’s where these guys have optimised, and it’s a good move,” said Slingsby during Audi Hamilton Island Race Week in August 2017.
In her former guise as Alfa Romeo, Black Jack 100 won line honours in Hobart in 2009, but much has changed in the years since.
“We essentially bought a boat with a tungsten bulb, a two-year-old mast and a good hull – everything else was near enough original,” said project manager Alex Nolan. He describes the core objectives of the upgrade: “The big thing has been reducing weight and simplifying systems to be more user-friendly.”
The weight loss strategy has been extensive with a total rewiring of the boat, including distributing the previously centralised hydraulics manifolds to a series of outlying hubs, reducing metres of wiring and hose, helping to shed several hundred kilos of weight in the process.
“We’ve added five sailing hydraulic rams and powered three more winches and overall we are still lighter in the hydraulics package,” said Nolan.
Replacing the original removable bowsprit with a fixed sprit has also saved weight in the bow by reducing the amount of structure required, a change that went hand in glove with moving the forestay forward and increasing the J measurement for bigger headsails.
Against the wind
The most significant change, however, has been the rebuilding of the forward rudder to integrate a lifting mode for downwind sailing. The Wild Oats XI team replaced their original forward rudder with a centreboard and added lifting daggerboards, but for Black Jack 100 the need to capitalise on upwind conditions made the complexity and expense of this lifting rudder an obvious investment.
With barely more than a couple of training sessions under her keel, Black Jack 100 showed immediate form on her first outing in the Land Rover Sydney to Gold Coast Race, remaining within close sight of old rival Wild Oats XI for the entire two days of the mostly light wind 380-mile race.
That promising form continued into Audi Hamilton Island Race Week with Black Jack 100 only losing out to the Oatley family’s all-conquering silver machine when heavier breezes closed out the last two days of the regatta at the end of August.
Not only does Black Jack 100’s early form suggest that she will give her rivals a run for their money in the race to Hobart. Her crew are not lacking in motivation either – the late Sir Jack Brabham, the legendary Formula One racing driver after whom the boat is named, inscribed three words on a bulkhead of his friend Peter Harburg’s previous boat. It simply read: “Get after them!”
LOA: 30.5 m (100ft)
Beam: 5.2 m (17ft)
Draught: 5.1 m (16.7ft)
Displacement: 26.5 tonnes (58,423lbs)
Mainsail area: 360 m2 (3,875 sq ft)
Downwind sail area: 1,126 m2 (12,120 sq ft)
Upwind sail area: 593 m2 (6,383 sq ft)
IRC rating: 1.917
First published in the January 2018 edition of Yachting World.