Who’d want to be a tactician and navigator in the 2013 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race?
Talk about pressure!
With everyone saying two days before the race start that we would have to wait until race day to determine the weather strategy, you’d think that more than 36 hours after the fleet left Sydney that we might have a clearer idea about how this year’s race was going to play out.
Not a bit of it. The race might as well be starting again at Gabo Island, which for the front runners it actually is.
And it’s not simply one gate that’s needing to be negotiated, it’s at least three….first at Gabo Island, setting up for the Bass Strait crossing, then off southern Bass Strait for the run down the Tasmanian Coast and finally the hard right hander at Tasman Light. The race can be easily won or lost on the call made at each of those, much less handling the complicated transitions around the listless High that is affecting much of the fleet off the NSW south coast as we write.
So, no pressure there for the trusty navigators, then.
The leading six boats in the fleet (in rough order, Wild Oats XI, Perpetual Loyal, Ragamuffin, Wild Thing, Beau Geste, Giacomo and Black Jack) are in the northern end of Bass Strait and were pottering along for much of yesterday in that frustrating ‘lazy high’ that Lindsay May spoke of on Christmas Eve, all of them some miles east of the rhumbline (Wild Thing and Beau Geste have opted to go very wide in that direction).
An upbeat Anthony Bell was talking by Skype to the media centre here in Hobart this afternoon and was making light of the almost complete absence of breeze experienced by Perpetual Loyal for much of the day in the north of Bass Strait. Having been 13 miles ahead of Wild Oats XI overnight, Wild Oats XI had clawed that deficit back by early this morning and now leads; both boats remain in sight of each other and Bell anticipates that the stronger north easterlies predicted for the next phase of the race will not play out until later tomorrow (Saturday).
Anthony Bell, owner and skipper of Perpetual Loyal
'We’re just bobbing around out here actually; right now its four knots' said Bell, 'I’ve seen it windier in my two year old daughter’s indoor swimming pool!' he added.
He also made an interesting observation about why running second, but staying in touch can sometimes be helpful,
'I don’t know that you’d want to be the front running boat going in to Tasman Light in this race. It might do as it did in 2011 and leave some track lines for the guys coming in second or third to make some decisions around (in 2011, Loyal sailed around Wild Oats XI while she was in parked in a large windless ‘hole’ in the breeze north of Tasman Light). So, the pressure may be back on the leading boat, particularly as they navigate their way into the finality of the race.'
Meantime, behind the leading pack, the majority of the fleet is desperately trying to get south of the Bass Strait ‘level crossing’ before the barriers come down and the freight train of a pending westerly gale roars through – timetabled for late tomorrow – probably bringing to an end the hopes for an overall handicap win for the more aspirational amongst them, if caught north of the crossing when the ‘train’ blasts through.
So, how does this scenario compare with what some of the crew from boats of all sizes had to say about what lay ahead, as they prepared to depart Sydney Harbour yesterday?
Quite accurately, it would seem. From the largest boats to the smallest, this is what their crews had to say, when I spoke to them prior to departure:
Michael Coxon, watching the race start from aboard Neville Crichton's Cigarette power boat.
Michael Coxon (originally sailing master on Perpetual Loyal [100 ft], but rendered a spectator by illness):
'It’s going to be a tricky race for sure. I’d say on paper it’s playing into Wild Oats’ best conditions. If you had to write a forecast for Loyal it couldn’t be worse for her than this one. Loyal is fantastic when she’s loaded up (healing and powered up), but when she’s not loaded, all that beam gives you wetted surface and when wetted surface sits in water, you’re stuck to the water.'
'But the other boat that people have been underestimating is Ragamuffin; because we won in that boat two years ago and while we weren’t as quick as Wild Oats XI, we could hang in there with her. Syd Fischer’s done a lot of the right things to that boat. She’s got new dagger boards to the latest design, water ballast and an extended prod (bowsprit). All those things make her a better boat.'
Gavin Brady of Team Beau Geste
Gavin Brady (Helmsman and tactician aboard Beau Geste, 80 ft):
'Everyone is going to have a waypoint off Gabo, because of the wind and current. The gate at that point will probably be only two to three miles wide; once the first lot are through, I’ll guarantee that everyone else will shoot through exactly the same gate. You’re not worried about Hobart at this point, you’re racing to a point off Gabo. Then we’re into Bass Strait and we can let these things loose and see what happens in northerlies in the running phase. For most of the fleet there will be a big right hand turn before the SW hits, scurrying inshore as fast as you can (on the approaches to the Tasmanian Coast) and then set yourself up for the trip down the coast.'
Brady again on sail handling and seamanship:
'The sailors on deck are going to have a huge part to play towards the end of the race. Sail handling in the changes will be key. One of our jibs is bigger than our mainsail, so dropping our jib is harder than dropping our mainsail. You can lose two miles on a poor sail change like that.'
Adrienne Cahalan (navigator on Wedgetail, 55ft)
'It’s one of those races where you’ve got to get south, that’s where the better breeze is. Whoever gets to Tasman Light with the minimum upwind sailing will probably do the best at the moment. It’s a very tactical race; there’s so much uncertainty in this forecast, which is great because everybody’s got a chance; there won’t be much sleeping!'
Daryl Hodgkinson, skipper of Victoire
Daryl Hodgkinson (skipper of Victoire, 50 ft)
'Most people will be trying to get offshore for the first night, but if it turns you’ve got to know that you can get back to the coast. We’ll be waiting for that NE to give us a bit of a punch down into the Strait. Hopefully we’ll beat a bit of the worst of the SW before it really comes in.' (Daryl confirms that they do indeed have their third reef moused, and hopes they won’t have to use it.)
Paul Clitheroe, skipper of Balance
Paul Clitheroe (skipper of Balance, 45ft)
'We know we’re going to be in a gale and we know we have some light air running on the first afternoon, but everything else between Wollongong and the bottom of Tasmania is a complete unknown. Worse still there are three different weather models for the middle of the race and one of them is going to be right. My problem is I don’t know which one it’s going to be! I suspect it’s the toss of a coin.'
Bruce Taylor (skipper of Chutzpah, 40 ft)
'I don’t think this forecast suits anyone; it’s very unpredictable and very unstable. There are only two sure things, firstly that everyone is going to get hammered off Hobart and secondly
there will be change in Bass Strait late on Saturday, so getting as far south as quickly as possible before then is the goal.'
James Cameron (right) and the crew of Luna Sea.
James Cameron (skipper of Luna Sea, 35 ft)
'It’s going to be quite fickle; getting across Bass Strait is going to be interesting. We might be able to sneak across before the worst of the westerly and south/westerly come through. Either way we’re going to getting a fair bit of it going around Tasman Light. But the boat’s definitely up for it and we’ve had plenty of recent heavy weather experience, getting a third on IRC in the Lord Howe Island Race.
Travis Read, skipper of Illusion
Travis Read (skipper of Illusion, 34 ft, equal smallest boat in the fleet along with Wilparina)
'We’ll probably be getting a hiding off Tasman Island, but we just put some small sails up and hang on tight. It will probably take us four and half days to get there; we’ll see how we go.'
So, got that everyone? The key message is 'get as far south as quickly as you can!'.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that’s a no brainer, but the general thesis that underpins that seemingly simplistic axiom is, that every hour spent not running the rhumb line in the first part of the race when the wind and sea conditions are more favourable, translates into many hours of boat bashing in an attritional south westerly gale, with accompanying large seas in the race Part 2.
Not a prospect to relish.
So, when you head to your comfortable bed tonight, spare a thought for those navigators and tacticians holed up in their tiny, airless nav stations, trying desperately to make a science out of what, with this mercurial forecast, might as well be guesswork.
As much by good luck as good management, these over-burdened souls will end up in Hobart (to borrow Jimmy Spithill’s idiom) as either roosters or feather dusters!
It's a tough job alright.