Wild Oats XI has laid down the gauntlet to her rivals in a thrilling start to the ocean classic on Sydney Harbour today 26/12/06

Rolex Sydney Hobart line honours favourite Wild Oats XI has laid down the gauntlet to her rivals in a thrilling start to the ocean classic on Sydney Harbour today.

In an extraordinary spectacle of close quarters, high speed sailing, the 98ft maxis charged down the harbour like it was a 100m dash, not a 628 nautical mile marathon.

It took Wild Oats XI, skippered by Mark Richards, just six minutes and fifty one seconds reach the first rounding mark between North and South Heads and just 32 minutes for the entire 78-boat fleet to leave the harbour, one of the fastest exits ever. Wild Oats XI rounded the mark ahead of Grant Wharington’s Skandia and Charles St Clair Brown and Bill Buckley’s New Zealand’s Maximus.

Following the roar of cannon fire thanks to 90-year-old 1947 crewman Dennis Mason, the two Australian maxis Wild Oats XI and Skandia, as well as the Netherlands Volvo 70 ABN AMRO ONE chose the western side of the harbour while Maximus chose the right-hand side of the course, along the eastern shore of Sydney Harbour.

Wild Oats XI, making the most of the bullets out of Rose Bay, stretched away from Skandia and ABN AMRO ONE which were neck and neck as they drag-raced to the first mark. Maximus, however, closer to the eastern shoreline, sailed into lighter air and watched her rivals edge away from her, rounding the first mark fourth.

At the first mark Wild Oats XI turned 31 seconds ahead of Skandia.

The race began in superb but cold conditions with sunny skies and south to south easterly winds of 15 knots, gusting to 20 knots. However, the spinnaker start anticipated by a huge fleet of spectator craft and the tens of thousands of people lining the harbour foreshores only partly materialised, the phenomenal speeds of the big boats bringing the apparent wind too far forward to give them the angles they needed for their giant chutes.

As they intermingled with the spectator fleet gathered in the chop at the sea mark, the order of the leading yachts rounding the sea mark were: Wild Oats XI, Skandia, Maximus, ABN AMRO ONE, Ichi Ban, Loki, DHL, Quantum Racing, Yendys, Wot Yot, Getaway-CMC Markets, Living Doll and Hardy’s Secret Men’s Business.

Ray Roberts’ Quantum Racing popped her spinnaker straight after the start, holding it all the way to the harbour turning mark, which put the 50 footer in the same space of water as the Volvo 6’s DHL and Getaway CMC Markets in the run to the sea mark, highlighting her prominence in pre-race handicap calculations.

Of the smaller yachts using the second start line Challenge, the Sydney 38 sailed by veteran Victorian yachtsman Lou Abrahams, was one of the best placed behind the leading boat from the second line, Ed Psaltis and Bob Thomas’ AFR Midnight Rambler, David Pescud’s Sailors with disABILITIES and Ocean Skins from Victoria.

On almost every yacht, crews were already in full wet weather gear and out on the rail on the reach out to the sea mark, an indication of what’s to come in the days ahead.

All 78 yachts enjoyed a clean start.

At 1600hours this afternoon the race leaders were off just north of Wollongong.

According to Yacht Tracker on the official race web site www.rolexsydneyhobart.com Wild Oats XI, racing with a reefed mainsail according to news helicopters, was in front of Maximus which sent a crewman up the mast after the fleet turned right at Sydney Heads to clear a headsail problem, ABN Amro One, Skandia and Ichi Ban.

Further back, Stephen Ainsworth’s Reichel/Pugh 60 Loki is leading the second bunch in the fleet, ahead of Yendys, Getaway-CMC Markets, DHL and Wot Yot.

Most of the fleet is heading offshore in search of the current and stronger winds with only a few remaining close inshore.