Forecast 40kt winds for later today could either help or hinder the leading Maxis from breaking the course record in the Rolex Sydney Hobart

Strong 40 knot winds could either help or hinder the leading Maxis from breaking the course record in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. Best placed to set a new time to Hobart is Wild Oats XI, which continues to lead the fleet of 85, including her four Maxi rivals, with Alfa Romeo now trailing Bob Oatley’s brand-new boat by 16 miles.

The gale-force winds will come as a mixed blessing for Wild Oats, which has had very limited time preparing for this most gruelling of races. Skipper Mark Richards would probably have preferred the winds to remain a little more moderate, because while stronger winds create the potential for faster speeds, the potential for catastrophe also increases exponentially.

With early evening moderate breezes giving Wild Oats a trajectory that would finish her maybe an hour inside the existing race record – set by Volvo Open 60 back in 1999 – it is hard to know if more wind would make beating the record easier or harder for Richards and the boys in red.

Behind these two twin-ruddered, canting-keel Super Maxis – arguably the most hi-tech race yachts in the world – are the same trio of Maxis that battled for line honours in last year’s epic race. The boat that won the 2004 race, the former Nicorette now rebranded as AAPT, has pulled back on to level terms with Skandia and Konica Minolta.

Skandia’s skipper Grant Wharington owned up to a mini-crisis this afternoon, when he sent an e-mail. “Well, crisis averted! Did you know we had a crisis? Well, yes we did, even if it was short lived. We have been on the same gybe for the last two hours due to engine failure. The engine powers the keel so we couldn’t cant easily (we have batteries but they would have run out quite fast). We thought that we had water through the engine but it seems that it is OK. Scottie is pretty covered in diesel – but at least there is a happy ending…. so far! Not sure how much ground we have lost, but we are back firing again now and going to give it a real good go. Back in the hunt, with still everything to play for.”

Ross Field, the former Whitbread Race winner doing the navigation on board Konica Minolta, sounded pleased with the conventionally-keeled Maxi’s progress. Indeed if he knew what had been going on aboard Skandia he would probably be quite pleased that he was standing over a keel with no moving parts. Speaking at 1900 hours local time he said: “Right at this moment we’ve got a nor-easter of 15 to 18 knots, but we think the breeze will increase.”

Skipper Stewart Thwaites and his crew had hoped for a nastier race to Hobart, as more breeze would most likely cause more trouble in the swing-keeled camp. “We definitely like the breeze,” explained Field. “The trouble is that Konica’s nearly a three-year-old boat and it’s old generation now. The new canting-keel boats are a lot quicker, they carry more sail area. We just have to play our own game. But I don’t think we’ll see 30 or 40 knots, I think we’ll only see 20. It’s quite a weak front coming through.”

While the lack of big breeze is frustrating Field from a racing perspective, from a personal point of view he’s loving the benign sailing conditions. “This has been an unbelievably easy Hobart. This will be my last one as I’ll never get a better one than this.”

Loki’s navigator Michael Bellingham was similarly effusive about the beautiful conditions: “We’re sailing in about 18 to 22 knots breeze, we’ve got a spinnaker up, and we’re doing about 13 to 15 knots. The weather has been very kind, I think this is my 15th Rolex Sydney Hobart, and I have to say this race is not over yet but so far it’s been champagne sailing.”

However, the champagne could run out quickly when the new weather front comes through. “We haven’t had any breakages, all the crew are happy, the boat’s going really well. But tonight will test everyone’s mettle, I think. The forecast is gale force, and I think we have to expect something between 20 and 30 knots, possibly 40 knots when the front first comes through. But the further back you are, the worse it’s going to be. There’s no doubt about that. We’re doing everything we can to get south as fast as we can, I can assure you of that.”

Like Konica Minolta and her battle with the canting-keeled Maxis, the conventionally-keeled Loki is locked in a similar battle with the swing-keeled Cookson 50s, Living Doll and the Irish-crewed Chieftain. “When the front comes through as predicted, that should be good for us,” said Bellingham. “We’re very close to the two Cookson 50s. We think it might suit us if the wind goes on the nose. I think the other secret for our size of boats is the further out to sea you get, the better it suits you. So we feel good about where we are.”