Johno Fullerton reports on an uncharacteristically clod start to this offshore classic

The 628 nautical mile ocean racing classic, the 65th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race started in overcast conditions, drizzle and around 10-12 knots of breeze from the South. Whilst the spectator fleet was around one third of the normal size the start was spectacular as 100 boats hoisted kites to gybe down the harbour from two separate start lines.
The majority of the 30 boats on the front line pooled down the pin end with around two minutes to go trying to time the perfect run-up whilst co-ordinating their kite hoist to stay in a clear lane.
Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats Xl reached down the line towards the committee boat in the final seconds to take the East shore track. Mike Slade’s ICAP Leopard had a good start mid line with Neville Crighton’s Alfa Romeo just on their hip a bit slow out of the blocks. GBR JV72 Ran had a good start pin electing to hoist early and time their run. As the three maxis surged towards the exclusion zone, Alfa Romeo elected gybed to avoid being gassed and headed back to the middle of the harbour. Wild Oats Xl accelerated clear of ICAP Leopard in clean air and gybed close to the layline to the clearing mark at the harbour heads.
Ran meanwhile decided to gybe early and sail across the rest of the chasing pack towards the Western shore. Alfa Romeo then gybed back again and headed back to a cross with arch rival Wild Oats Xl. As the two boats converged Wild Oats Xl gybed inside Alfa Romeo but a handling error caused a slow gybe drop and Alfa Romeo pounced on the mistake to claim the prestigious ‘first to the heads’ claim.
Neville Crighton and his crew rounded the clearing mark 25 seconds ahead of Wild Oats Xl with ICAP Leopard another15 seconds behind. As these three begun the slog upwind out to the second clearing mark, Ran squeezed inside the 100ft maxi Investec Loyal to round 4th. Maxis Yuuzoo and Lahana were next round followed by the first of the RP63’s Limit. Geoff Ross’s RP55 Yendys had a great start getting out of the harbour in good shape.
There were two reported incidents in the downwind dash from the line, last years handicap winning TP52 Quest had to do a 720 after an altercation with Lion New Zealand and a collision at the first mark caused the first retirement to She’s the Culprit.
The other big drama of the start was the lack of a sighting of the luckless maxi Etihad Stadium. Grant Wharington’s team of 50 had worked for15 days around the clock to get a replacement mast from France shipped out and rigged in time to start but despite all their efforts the 98ft maxi started under full sail but without a kite. Just after 2pm Etihad Stadium was forced to radio in their retirement due to problems with their rig set up and returned to dock.
The earlier predicted E/NE offshore failed to materialise so the leaders headed out to sea before tacking for the long beat South. After five hours of racing the breeze had increased to between 20-25 knots with Alfa Romeo maintaining a small 1nm lead over Wild Oats Xl with ICAP Leopard taking a slightly closer tack inshore. Niklas Zennstrom’s JV72 Ran held a narrow lead on handicap.
As the fleet beat southwards down the NSW coast much will depend on how far south they can get before the wind in the Bass Strait begins to fade and the predicted breeze swings to the West.
The race record is fairly safe but the race is expected to turn into a real test for the tacticians as the front runners reach the Bass Strait.

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