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Southern Spars

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race - Mixed bag of weather prospects

by Rob Mundle on 25 Dec 2013
Wild Oats XI can expect some fast sailing conditions in this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart Race. Andrea Francolini
It’s Christmas Day, but not even Santa could deliver the crew of Bob Oatley’s 30-metre supermaxi – the race record holder Wild Oats XI – a bag full of certainty when it comes to the weather outlook for the 69th Rolex Sydney Hobart yacht race, which commences tomorrow.

Also, one of the man-in-red’s better ‘helpers’, leading yachting meteorologist, Roger Badham, struggled to apply definitive answers, except to say that the big boats in the 94 yacht fleet should enjoy a better ride south than crews aboard the tail enders, who have been told to expect a south westerly gale with possible gusts of 45 knots, and rough seas, off Tasmania’s east coast on Sunday.

What Badham could tell the Wild Oats XI crew is that earlier forecasts for a fast ride down the New South Wales coast on the face of a solid north easterly breeze are no more. Instead, a cell of low pressure will form near Sydney tonight and generate a 20-knot southerly wind and lumpy seas at start time. The plus side to this is that a southerly wind will provide a colourful and spectacular spinnaker start on Sydney Harbour under cloudy grey skies. Then, once the fleet clears Sydney Heads, the yachts will be settling down for a bumpy ride for at least six hours. After that the wind will probably change direction towards the south-east then east – a change which would make for faster progress.

Regardless, it is still highly likely that the waters of Bass Strait, and off Tasmania’s east coast, will become a tactical nightmare for the afterguard of all the frontrunners. The winds are likely to become light and variable. That means calm patches would lie in wait like giant traps for the unfortunate and unwary.

In essence, the current outlook could be described as a ‘typical Hobart race’ – lots of unknowns, lots of variables and a solid gale with rough seas for at least some of the fleet.

With everything being in readiness aboard Wild Oats XI, the supermaxi’s 20-man crew enjoyed a casual Christmas Day celebration with family and friends. All will be looking forward to a solid sleep tonight as they will be lucky to get six hours sleep over the following 48 hours.

The crew will be at Woolwich Dock at 8am tomorrow to ready the yacht for the race. The members of the afterguard, including skipper Mark Richards, tactician Iain Murray, strategist Ian Burns and navigator Tom Addis, will attend the pre-race weather briefing at the Cruising Yacht Club at 8.30am then prepare an initial plan for the early stages of the course.

The race will start at 1pm tomorrow. There will be three parallel start lines.


Following is a brief history of the Wild Oats XI and some of her basic statistics:

Wild Oats XI, owned by Bob Oatley, is one of the fastest and most technologically advanced ocean racing yachts in the world. This year she lines up for Hobart race as the most successful yacht in the 69-year history of the arduous event. Her helmsman, Mark Richards, is recognised as the race’s most successful skipper.

When launched in late 2005, Wild Oats XI’s ground-breaking design and construction included a radical and technically brilliant canting keel – a feature Bob Oatley pioneered into this form of ocean yacht racing. A canting keel means the keel is hinged on the underside of the yacht’s amazing carbon fibre hull and controlled by a huge hydraulic ram so it can swing from one side to the other and increase stability. The hydraulic mechanism is so powerful it can lift a jumbo jet off the ground.

With the 12-tonne, torpedo-shaped lead ballast bulb moved 40 degrees out to windward, Wild Oats XI enjoys an exceptional power-to-weight advantage over a conventional design. If she had a non-canting keel, Wild Oats XI would require an additional five tonnes in ballast to achieve the same level of stability. In that configuration she would be would be 20 percent heavier, and considerably slower.

In this 2013 edition of the Hobart race Wild Oats XI will again pioneer new technology: she will be the first international ocean racing yacht to carry a hydrofoil-type wing – a feature designed to provide lift, and therefore greater speed, when sailing downwind. The concept was the brainchild of Bob Oatley’s son, Sandy and designed ‘in house’.

Back in 2005 the 100ft/30.5 metre long Wild Oats XI was launched only a matter of days before the Hobart race start, yet she proved to be so fast that she blasted her way to a rare triple crown – line honours, a race record time and victory on handicap. Her time for the 628 nautical mile course was 1 day, 18 hours, 40 minutes, and 10 seconds.

Wild Oats XI’s average speed for that race was just under 15 knots. When it is realised that she is capable of speeds close to 35 knots, one can only imagine what her time might be should she ever see ideal weather conditions during this race. She could reach Hobart within 24 hours!


Since her launch, Wild Oats XI has rewritten the record books for the Rolex Sydney Hobart by being first to finish on six occasions over eight years, and by becoming the first yacht ever to take four straight line honours. In 2009, after she was lengthened to 100ft the supermaxi surrendered her line honours crown to the almost identical Alfa Romeo, and in 2011 to Investec Loyal by just three minutes, 12 seconds. Last year Wild Oats XI again took the triple crown – line and handicap honours, and a race record time. That elapsed time was 16 minutes, 58 seconds inside her previous mark.

Should Wild Oats XI be first to finish in this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart race she will equal the record of seven line honours which was achieved by Morna (later renamed Kurrewa IV) over 14 years – between 1946 and 1960.

As in previous years, Wild Oats XI’s crew for this year’s Hobart race will be made up of some of the world’s best offshore sailors, including world champion and America’s Cup sailor Iain Murray (who is to head the Oatley family’s recently announced challenge for the America’s Cup), America’s Cup sailor, Ian Burns, round-the-world race navigator, Tom Addis, and internationally recognised kiwi sailors, Stu Bannatyne and Robbie Naismith.

Wild Oats XI - Vital statistics – Rolex Sydney Hobart race 2013

• Length: 30.5 metres (or 100 feet) - about the height of a ten storey building
• Beam/width: 5.1 metres
• Depth of the keel: 5.5 metres
• Construction: carbon fibre
• Weight of the keel and ballast bulb: 12 tonnes/12,000 kilograms - roughly the same weight as a dozen family sedans
• Length of the mast: 45 metres – that is about four metres less than the width of the main span of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. At high tide the mast squeezes under the bridge with only three to four metres to spare.
• Length of the boom: 14 metres
• Overall weight empty: 27 tonnes/27,000 kg - approximately the same weight as six male African Elephants
• Weight fully laden with crew, sails, food, water and fuel: 31,000 kg - just add one more elephant
• Maximum speed to date: 35 knots – that is 64.82 km/hr
• Crew size: 20 - the equivalent of an Australian Rules football team, plus two.
• Total area of all sails carried in the Rolex Sydney Hobart race: approximately four square kilometres!
• Largest spinnaker area: 940 square metres – almost the size of the legendary Australian quarter acre house Rolex Sydney Hobart website

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