by Jim Gale
The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2012 will surely be another all-out tussle among boats of different shapes and sizes. However, unlike in the previous editions of the Boxing Day extravaganza where supermaxis reign supreme, this year’s big race will unveil the rise of the cruiser-racer Beneteau 40s.
Robbo Robertson loves that his Beneteau is exceptionally good upwind.
A typical Rolex Sydney Hobart is not just one race but a whole lot of races within a race - first there is the race for the Tattersall’s Cup for first overall - that’s the race between all the IRC boats, and is the prize everyone covets.
Then for those who miss out on an IRC victory in the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia hosted race, some will score victories on ORCi and PHS. The big boys will fight over line honours, and everyone will seek to win their division (based on yacht size).
It may sound confusing, but these multiple contests are what makes ocean racing so rewarding for the owners who devote enormous amounts of time, and often a lot of money, to a sport where you might win a cup, or a pennant, but most definitely not a cheque.
And then there are those special contests between mini-fleets of identical boats.
Oldies will remember the great days of the S&S 34’s. For decades, a host of club sailors would head south in their pretty, robust, dearly beloved 34s.
Former British Prime Minister, Ted Heath, famously won the race overall with one; Morning Cloud, but mostly it was about bragging rights over those long, boozy nights in Constitution dock when the Bass Strait waves got ever bigger and the winds ever more ferocious.
More recently, the Sydney 38’s have had their own special, internal war, attracting some of Australia’s great yachtsmen, including the remarkable Lou Abrahams. However, despite some big 38 fleets in recent years, only four Sydney 38s will do battle this year. So 2012, it seems, is the time of the Beneteau 40s.
And whereas the Sydney 38s are strictly one design, no-frills racing boats, a joy both round the buoys and at sea, the Beneteaus are genuine club cruiser-racers, to be endlessly personalised and fiddled with by their owners, much like those old S&S 34s.
On Boxing Day, no fewer than six Beneteau 40s will cross the start line. Some of their high-speed divisional rivals, like the grand prix style Ker 40s, will disappear over the horizon eventually, but for four days and 600 miles, the Beneteau First 40s could share the same water, and the same weather, within sight of each other.
A bad spinnaker set could provide entertainment for all – and come that quiet little drink in Hobart, there will be no excuses.
'One design racing is fantastic,' enthuses Andrew Saies, skipper of the 2009 Hobart winning Beneteau First 40, Two True. 'It’s how we all started sailing in dinghies and it’s great in keelboats. Racing so tightly against each other lifts all our performances relative to the larger fleet.'
Bob (Robbo) Robertson of Lunchtime Legend (a second Beneteau F40) fame says: 'We can see each other all the way, and then suddenly, we’re all in town together telling each other how we lost it. When you get a group that finish together, you’re all going to be in the pub together.'
It all makes for intense, close racing. Last year, after 96 hours at sea, Two True and Lunchtime Legend finished on exactly the same corrected time to the second. 'If you calculated to the sixth decimal point of a second, we were still tied,' says Saies.
'Actually, if you keep calculating to the 14th decimal place we beat him, but they don’t count that,' he jokes.
Saies says that the Beneteau First 40 is an ideal boat for would-be ocean racers on a budget. 'It is a competitive boat, with a good pedigree - designed by Bruce Farr - it hits the mark. It races well, is comfortable, you can cruise in it they have a good life after racing.
'When we bought Two True, we looked at other options, including bigger boats around 45 feet but they were double the price.'
Having owned uncompromising racing boats all his life, 73 year old Robbo Robertson seems a bit surprised by how much he is enjoying his Beneteau. 'I’ve had 23 racing boats over the years, but at 73, I wanted a bit of comfort when doing deliveries (to and from races),' he says.
'I always said I’d cut my wrists before buying a Beneteau, but they’re exceptionally good upwind and good downwind. They are hard work in light conditions, but in normal or very strong conditions, they’re very good. Last year we were out in 30 knots, but it was a pleasure.'
Everyone agrees that, while you might not use it during a race, having hot water on board is kind of nice on the way home, and those luxurious European galleys and polished timber saloons are certainly more wife friendly, though it’s too late now for Robertson: 'Having had racing boats all my life, my wife won’t go near the yacht club.'
For Tony Kinsman of Queensland, the whole point of owning and campaigning his Beneteau First 40, Blunderbuss, is that it is a family affair, drawing everyone together. Everyone can enjoy time on the water, while competing against other 40s adds a whole extra dimension to the racing he shares with his three sons.
'There are a lot of really good sailors and boats (among the Beneteaus),' he says. 'One of them, Lunchtime Legend, is from our own club. It will make for a really tough race.'
'We’ll have to watch Two True,' Robertson says. 'They know the boat and they’ve done a lot of work, but we tied with them last year and beat them at Hamilton Island. Brannnew seems to be on the pace too.'
'I am not familiar with all of the other boats,' Saies concedes, 'but Wicked (Mike Welsh’s F40) is doing well, and of course there is Robbo.'
'The thing is,' Robertson says, 'one boat can tack early and pick something up while you go a bit further before you tack, and in such evenly matched boats, if someone gets a bit ahead, it’s very difficult to catch up.'
And then there is the main prize.
Every skipper has an eye on the Tattersall’s Cup. Two True showed in 2009 that a modest cruiser-racer, sailed well, can knock off the tallest poppies. The older S&S 47, Love & War, did the same in 2006.
'They won’t plane like the TP52s, so if this is predominantly a downwind race, we’re out of it,' Saies concedes, 'but we have a real edge upwind in 15 to 20 knots, when we exceed our target speeds.'
Kinsman agrees. 'The Beneteau First 40 also goes upwind very well, a big plus in a typical Rolex Sydney Hobart that more often than not will throw at least one big southerly, if not two at the smaller boats over the four days they are on the racecourse.'
'Cruiser-racers have as much chance of winning as the TP52s in a long race like this,' Robertson says.
'Around the buoys, the TP52s can get away from you downwind and there isn’t enough time to windward to get it back, but most Hobarts you get more than 50 percent on the nose, so you can get time back.
'I’ve been going to Hobart for 31 years and I would never go if I didn’t think we could win,' Roberson ends.