Festival of Sails - Spectacular start to Melbourne to Geelong race

171st Festival of Sails, Melbourne to Geelong passage race 2014
Teri Dodds
In the 171st Festival of Sails regatta the three-month old high-tech yacht Ichi Ban has stamped its authority early with a lead in the Melbourne to Geelong passage race that may be small in miles but could prove huge for the confidence of the crew.

Matt Allen’s 60-footer led the 230 strong fleet around the first mark on Port Phillip in the 34 nautical mile race, but the favourite wasn’t far ahead of her monohull counterpart, Tony Kirby’s Patrice, and their multihull rivals for first to reach Geelong, Morticia and Box Office.

It took Ichi Ban just 30 minutes to reach the turning mark at Sandringham, while in her wake crews aboard the smaller yachts were stacked to leeward in their wet-weather gear slogging it out in the rain and a sloppy six to eight knot sou’easterly breeze.

Multihull favourite Malice was forced to duck and weave back through the starting fleet after a shocker start. The Queensland Nacra 36 owned by Mal Richardson not only jumped the gun, but failed to cross the start line correctly a second time forcing them to make a third and this time successful attempt.

The Victorian Minster for Sport and Recreation, the Hon. Hugh Delahunty fired the 0930hrs starting cannon before heading back to his office.

Principal Race Officer Denis Thompson said it was a 'gloomy but spectacular start'.

'To see a mass of yachts like that is nothing short of a spectacle,' he said. 'What’s more is we’ve got this contest at the front of the pack that’s hard to pick. 'When the fleet turns the corner at Sandringham they’ll come on the wind and that’s where I think the multihulls might struggle and Ichi Ban will pull away. But there’s a southerly change coming, which could turn it all on its head again.'

That southerly change will prove a major factor in deciding who will claim victory. Just moments before the race started Matt Allen said the weather models still weren’t matching up on just when that southerly change, which promises 20 plus knots, would hit the fleet.

'Every hour we’re out there in light air means the smaller boats will hang on,' Allen said. 'When it does hit, we’ll take longer to get going because we’re bigger, but we do need it to come. It’s going to be hard to win.'

Hoping to pip Allen to the post is Patrice skipper Tony Kirby, who’s been busy bolstering the 46-footer’s structure since it crashed out of its debut Rolex Sydney Hobart with bow damage.

'We’ve proven strong in the light stuff, so hopefully we’ll be able to just hang in there,' Kirby said while motoring out to the start line.

'We’ll be watching for that southerly change closely, it’s that transition we’re worried about more than our competitors.'

Further back in the fleet and Nunyarra skipper David Barnett and his crew of two aboard the seven-metre Farrier F22r gamely packed lunch, but no dinner.

The crew is out to defend its division title in the passage race and will have no time for eating, Barnett says, even though it took some 10 hours to finish last year.

'We’re hoping to have the same success as last year,' Barnett said. 'We were nearing Geelong and could see all these boats upright, I thought they’d stopped racing.

'They were stuck in ions, and we’d managed to get the wind before them. That could happen again with this forecast, who knows?'

The first yachts are expected to cross the finish line at Geelong at about 1400 AEDT, well outside record time, and the tail-enders must finish before sunset. A line honours trophy will be awarded for the first monohull and first multihull.

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