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Sydney Hobart - From canoe with a bed sheet sail to Wild Oats XI

by Rob Mundle on 25 Dec 2011
On the charge: Wild Oats XI surges south in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race © Andrea Francolini Photography http://www.afrancolini.com/
When Wild Oats XI surges out of Sydney Harbour after the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race at 1.00pm on Boxing Day December 26, there will be a distinct link between the 30-metre long racing supermaxi and a flimsy little, canvas-covered canoe that sailed on the same harbour 72 years earlier.

That link is Wild Oats XI’s owner, Bob Oatley: he also owned the canoe.

Bob Oatley was 11-years-old when he first ventured onto Sydney Harbour under sail. The canoe had cost a lot of money for a young lad back then – two shillings and sixpence – and once that transaction was complete he set about converting it into a sailboat because sailing appealed a lot more than paddling. The mast was a wooden garden stake, the sail was made from a bed sheet, and the roughly hewn rudder was crafted from a piece of scrap timber.

Bob’s mother passed away before he was one-year-old, and his family was not well-to-do, so this canoe satisfied his adventurous spirit under sail until he was 15 and started work as a messenger boy in an office in the heart of Sydney. That allowed him to save enough money to buy a 12ft skiff.

While this modest, self-made man has never been one to seek the limelight, he needs no introduction these days. This is because, in the last decade, his success in the upper echelon of yachting, and in business, has turned the spotlight his way and transported him into public prominence. He is also a generous philanthropist.

In sailing he is best-known for pioneering canting keels in Grand Prix level international ocean racing; leading Australia to victory in the Admiral’s Cup in 2003, and owning the Rolex Sydney-Hobart race record holder, Wild Oats XI. In business he is recognised as a pioneer of the coffee industry in New Guinea, and after that he became one of Australia’s most successful winemakers. Today there’s still no stopping this octogenarian: he’s back in the wine business with the already successful Wild Oats, Robert Oatley and Montrose labels. Also, his family company now owns that highly desired holiday destination in the Whitsundays, Hamilton Island.

This year Wild Oats XI will be going for a remarkable sixth line honours in seven starts. If that bid is successful then in 2012 the yacht will be out to equal the highest number of line honours ever achieved in the race’s 67-year history. The score of seven fastest times was recorded by Morna (later Kurrewa IV) between 1946 and 1960.

Unfortunately, a medical condition with his legs has ended Bob’s ability to sail in long distance ocean races, but he will be following his yacht and the highly experienced team over every one of the 628 nautical miles of the course: ‘These days, for me, it’s a bit like being at the Melbourne Cup and watching from the grandstand while your horse runs for the prize,’ he explained. ‘The big difference is that it takes a lot longer to get a result in the Hobart race. Even so, it’s so exciting for me I still feel as though I am there.’

The Wild Oats XI crew, under the leadership of Mark Richards, is full of praise for Bob Oatley and the opportunity he has given them to ‘carry his colours’ to victory.

Wild Oats XI has never been better prepared for a start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart race. She will carry a new, high-tech metallic-looking mainsail that holds its shape as if it was a rigid wing. This sail is 30 square metres larger at the top than the sail it replaces. Sailmakers have also increased the area of the yacht’s largest gennaker by 50 square metres to a total of 900 square metres.

‘Prepared as we are, thanks to Bob, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is a Hobart race, and that means nothing is certain until you cross the finish line,’ said Mark Richards. ‘It’s a tough challenge because there are so many elements that can bring you unstuck – weather, sea state, equipment failure, even a collision with a semi-submerged object. Being favourite for line honours means little to us: we just have a job to do, and that will be our focus all the way.’


The fact that the yacht is race ready meant that the 20 crewmembers were able to spend Christmas Day relaxing with family and friends. If there is to be any anxious moment it will come in the hours leading up to the start when expert sail trimmer, Robbie ‘Battler’ Naismith, is due to fly in from Auckland. There will be 19 crew mates hoping his flight is not delayed.

The latest weather forecast for the race from the highly respected yachting meteorologist, Roger Badham, sees the projected elapsed time for the largest yachts increased to two days and eight hours – 15 hours beyond the race record time Wild Oats XI set in 2005. Badham expects a southerly buster to impact the leaders off Jervis Bay. Strong winds from forward of abeam will continue until the big boats are well into Bass Strait.

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