An impressive line up, but what does the weather hold in store? Johno Fullerton reports

A fleet of 100 entries including an impressive assembly of maxi yachts are gearing up for the 65th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race start on Boxing Day. The Cruising Yacht Club of Australia extended the overall length limit to 100ft causing a mass of modifications and a new surge of interest from the speed monsters.

Of the seven maxis, all the dockside talk is of the battle between the Reichel Pugh near sisters ships of race record-holder Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats XI, chasing her fifth consecutive line honours win and Neville Crighton’s Alfa Romeo recent line honours winner of the Transpac Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii. Both yachts sprinted round the recent SOLAS Big Boat Challenge within three boat lengths of each other until the final run when Wild Oats Xl suffered an hour glass in their spinnaker on the hoist allowing Alfa to sprint past.

With stronger breezes and upwind work Mike Slade’s Rolex Fastnet Race record holder ICAP Leopard, a Farr design from the UK, should put pressure on the two RP favourites. ICAP Leopard finished 27 minutes behind Wild Oats XI in the 2007 Rolex Sydney Hobart and won line honours again this year in both the Rolex Fastnet and the Rolex Middle Sea Races.

The Greg Elliott-designed Investec Loyal (formerly Maximus) will be skippered by seasonal campaigner Sean Langman and stands a decent chance in a good blow. She has undergone an extensive modification programme including a new keel and a bigger rig.

Grand Wharington’s Etihad Stadium (formerly Skandia Wild Thing) has endured an epic race against time to replace the rig after they suffered the heartache of a dismasting on the delivery trip from Melbourne. Alfa Romeos’s spare was air freighted in two parts and fitted with a day to spare. The 30m maxi has also undergone some major surgery including a new radical 7m keel for this year’s race.

The other two maxis include the fixed keel water ballast yacht Lahana (ex Konica Minolta and Zana) and Yuuzoo a powerful 90 footer skippered by Ludde Ingvall.

The competition between these beasts will be intense and given favourable conditions could test the current race record of 1 day, 18 hours, 40 minutes, 10 seconds, set by Wild Oats XI in 2005.

The battle for handicap honours

The contest for the race’s major trophy, the Tattersalls’ Cup for the overall winner on IRC handicap, is wide open. The fleet of mid range maxis and 50-60 footers is the strongest in the races history according to CYCA commodore Matt Allen.

The dark horse is RAN Niklas Zennstrom’s Judel/Vrolijk 72 from Great Britain She is untested in the southern hemisphere, but with a formidable track record including winning the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race overall and Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in the Mini Maxi division. Onboard will be a host of America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race sailors.

The two re-vamped Reichel/Pugh 62-63ft near-sister designs, Alan Brierty’s Limit, with Gavin Brady onboard, and Stephen Ainsworth’s Loki, upgraded for their second season battled down to the wire in the Rolex Rating Series prelude to the main race.

Michael Hiatt’s Living Doll, a one-year old Farr 55, is another hot overall handicap prospect. So is Geoff Ross’ Reichel/Pugh 55 Yendys, which has a new keel that is half a metre deeper and 420kg, and will have Volvo racer and 49er Olympian Chris Nicholson as helm.

A strong group of six TP/JV 52s including last year’s winner Quest (Bob Steel), Calm, Cougar and Shogun from Melbourne, Shortwave from Sydney and veteran campaigner Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin will all put pressure on the lead boats in the right conditions.

The fleet – the second strongest in a decade – includes 12 overseas yachts. Among them is another maxi the 100ft Rapture, a Farr-designed performance cruiser owned by American Brook Lenfest. The S&S 41 Pinta-M, (Atse Blei) from the Netherlands, 85/86 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race contender Lion New Zealand and three yachts crewed by members of Her Majesty’s armed forces representing the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Weather forecast down plays race record

A low pressure system left over from the tropical cyclone sweeping across the continent from the NW has left a tricky weather pattern to test the mettle of the navigators competing in this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

Two days to race start and Barry Hanstrum senior forecaster for the NSW Bureau of Meteorology, predicts that the fleet of 100 boats will probably start in a light to moderate southerly of 10-20 knots, which would mean a spectacular spinnaker start in Sydney Harbour. This would be followed by a beat to windward in 10-20 knots as the fleet reaches the open sea.

While the wind would back to the east – northeast offshore, a low pressure trough would create lighter air inshore. A west to southwest change on Sunday night in the Bass Strait of 20-30 knots would continue into Monday, December 28.

While the scenario is still changing, pockets of light breeze to be negotiated between two major wind systems look to have removed the prospects of a record-breaking run by the maxis.

Mark Richards, skipper of Wild Oats Xl says it will be a very tricky race, but he is not thinking of the race record, solely concentrating on getting over the line first.

Neville Crighton of rival maxi Alfa Romeo predicts a race of ‘just under two days’. Amusingly he adds “I’ve been dreaming about race victory for weeks but Ricko keeps cropping up in my dreams!”

Yendys’ Will Oxley, one of the fleet’s top navigators with 11 Hobart races under his belt, sees the situation on the first day as even trickier. “It looks quite important to stay in the east; in the west you are likely to run out of breeze earlier. The big boats will get into the nor’easterly breeze, clear of the trough, first.”

But Oxley believes the big boats will run out of breeze and “park” in the lee of the Tasmanian coast. “I think the race is going to be won or lost off the Tasmanian coast with the transitioning of that light wind area into the new breeze that comes on the 28th.”

The forecast, with its mix of light weather, does not suit Mike Slade’s Farr 100 ICAP Leopard, a great upwind performer. “We’d like strong upwind for the first 12 hours and then when you look down to Gabo Island going into Bass Strait, there’s pockets there of intense weakness and you could sit there for five hours,” said Slade.

Top prospects for the race’s major prize, the Tattersall’s Cup for the overall winner on IRC Ran’s tactician Adrian Stead, who has sailed in two Rolex Sydney Hobart Races, said of the official race forecast, “We knew it was going to be difficult getting out and away from Sydney depending on where the trough lines up.”

He said the weather was still evolving. “It’s not a straight-forward race, so that means we’ve got to think a lot. We’re going to see a range of conditions, which is good because there are a lot of boats here that are probably fast in one condition, slow in others. So I think it could be a well-balanced race.”

Rain is also forecast for the blue water classic start but 100 yachts downwind flying at the gun is a mouth watering prospect that is unlikely to deter the thousands of spectators lining the shoreline.

Race start is 1300hrs on Boxing Day, 26th December. Johno Fullerton will provide daily race updates.

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