by Jim Gale
In the SOLAS Big Boats Challenge, Bob Oatley may have to crack two bottles of champagne tonight as his two ocean racing thoroughbreds Wild Oats X and Wild Oats XI shared the silverware from today in the dash around Sydney Harbour that has become the traditional curtain raiser to the Rolex Sydney Hobart.
Wild Oats X, skippered by Troy Tindall, got the overall win - 2012 SOLAS Big Boat Challenge
In a display of raw power and boat speed that has become the signature of Oatley’s 100 foot super maxi and Rolex Sydney Hobart line honours favourite Wild Oats XI, skipper Mark Richards put daylight between himself and second placed Lahana, crossing the line nearly 10 minutes in front.
Lahana was second over the line today - 2012 SOLAS Big Boat Challenge
In a fresh south easterly and in the absence of Ragamuffin–Loyal and Wild Thing, Richards chose to sail well within his boat’s limits, with a reef mainsail, but still lead the fleet around every mark. Richards sailed with his full Hobart crew today and they looked sharp and well-oiled at every turn despite briefly snagging a spinnaker sheet under the bow.
After the race Richards said that the southerly winds and sloppy chop had made for a surprisingly testing day. 'It was a lot of work. The boat was flying around the race track and didn’t give us much time to set up for sail changes and stuff. Ropes were going everywhere.
'The best thing for us is we got around unscathed, with all fingers and toes. It was a good workout.'
But it was Wild Oats XI’s baby sister, the similarly canting keeled RP66 Wild Oats X that stole the show. 18 foot skiff sailor Troy Tindall had thrown together a crew of his Double Bay mates for the race and they turned on a blinder.
Wild Oats XI claims her sixth line honours victory - 2012 SOLAS Big Boat Challenge
'We sailed together for half an hour yesterday and before the start (today) there were some pretty nervous moments,' Tindall conceded, 'but we got a really good start and took off from there.'
The skiffies trailed the two big boats across the line of course, but were close enough to take a four minute lead on corrected time on Lahana, and nearly four and a half minutes on Wild Oats XI to win the race outright on IRC.
If Wild Oats X was smoking, so was her RP66 sistership Black Jack. Just boat lengths separated the two boats. At times they looked more like speedboats than sailboats with spray from their fine bows arcing back past the foredeck as they sliced through the choppy harbour.
Black Jack, though, paid for a poor start. The lost minutes at the beginning cost her second place on handicap to 2011 Rolex Sydney Hobart winner Loki, despite Loki shredding a spinnaker on the first downwind leg. A costly day out for owner Stephen Ainsworth.
Black Jack got some speed up - 2012 SOLAS Big Boat Challenge
Ainsworth was pretty laconic about the sail after the race, 'we were going to bring it down anyway,' and will draw some consolation from his second place finish, but he knows that if he wants to make it two wins in a row in the big race he will have to hang onto Black Jack all the way to Hobart.
On today’s evidence Black Jack has a big edge over Loki in pure boat speed, but with her canting keel and extra three feet over the conventionally keeled RP63 Loki she gives away time on handicap. Both are no doubt pleased Wild Oats X and her skiff sailors are staying home, but the battle between Loki and Black Jack will be a highlight of this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart.
With neither Ragamuffin-Loyal nor the revamped Wild Thing on the racetrack, today gave little guidance on the race for line honours come Boxing Day.
Richards is clearly pleased with the speed he is getting out of Wild Oats XI, and as Lahana’s owner Peter Millard conceded after the race, in drag racing terms 'Wild Oats XI is a generation apart. We realise we are a bubbling V8 against a V12.'
The Rolex Sydney Hobart can be a drag race for the front running boats, but not always. If not, Millard will be hoping that his tactician, Gavin Brady, newly returned to Lahana after campaigning internationally on a number of maxis in recent years, will find a way round the faster boat.
'The boat is faster than it was,' Brady says, 'the changes have improved the boat’s performance and structure.'
Lahana will probably need Ragamuffin-Loyal or Wild Thing to put pressure on Wild Oats XI, perhaps forcing an error or at least allowing the New Zealanders to race their own race in different water.
It’s a long way to Hobart and a lot more unexpected things can happen in 628 miles than in the high speed dahs around Sydney Harbour today.