Rolex Sydney to Hobart - Wild Oats XI crew encouraged by final trial

On the pace: Rolex Sydney Hobart Race record holder, Wild Oats XI, shows an impressive turn of speed in Bass Strait. - Rolex Sydney to Hobart 2013
For this week’s Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race while the weather outlook is ‘messy’, according to yachting meteorologist Roger ‘Clouds’ Badham, the skipper of Bob Oatley’s race record holder – the 100ft supermaxi, Wild Oats XI – couldn’t be happier on two fronts.

Mark ‘Ricko’ Richards, who has skippered the sleek silver sloop in all eight of her Hobart race starts, likes what he sees in Badham’s current forecast for the 628-nautical-mile race, which starts on Boxing Day. And, bringing added pleasure to preparations is the knowledge that Wild Oats XI’s final pre-race hit-out confirmed she is sailing faster than ever.

'That doesn’t necessarily mean we will be first to Hobart,' Richards was quick to point out. 'We know all too well that there’s an element of luck needed in this race, especially when it comes to the weather. But, it is good to know that Wild Oats XI is fast.

'When you go into a Hobart race you need the best possible ammunition, and I think we have got it. The new mast is making a big difference to our speed, and we also now know that when the new hydrofoil wing is deployed and comes into its zone it improves our downwind speed.

Richards confirmed that the new low-windage mast, which is 200 kilos lighter and considerably stiffer than the one it replaced, has contributed significantly to the improvement in speed. For example, Wild Oats XI is now sailing two knots faster upwind than when she was launched in 2005 – a considerable gain for any yacht this size.

The yacht is the most successful in the 69-year history of the classic, having scored six line honours, two victories on handicap and two race record times.

Wild Oats XI’s final pre-race trial was staged over four hours yesterday in a 20-30 knot southerly wind and lumpy seas off Sydney Heads. New sails were tested and many of the manoeuvres the crew can expect to be confronted by during the race were executed.

With the yacht now 100 per cent ready, the principal members of the highly talented afterguard are concentrating on the race weather forecast. This group includes Richards, tactician Iain Murray, strategist Ian ‘Fresh’ Burns, and navigator Tom Addis. Both Murray and Burns have just returned from San Francisco where they played prominent roles in the America’s Cup regatta.

Badham’s current forecast sees him saying: 'The closer we get [to the start], the more detail is added and more complex and messy the weather pattern looks over Bass Strait and the Tasmanian coast on Day 2 and Day 3.' He is not, however, discounting the chance that the first yacht home could finish inside the race record time of 1 day, 18 hours, 23 minutes, 12 seconds set by Wild Oats XI last year.

'The forecast we are seeing now will suit us, but the race is going to be unbelievably tricky tactically – a huge mental challenge,' Richards said. 'There is every chance that the leading group will compress on at least one occasion.'

Wild Oats XI’s crew is well mindful of what can happen in such conditions. In the 2011 Rolex Sydney Hobart Race they held a comfortable lead approaching Tasman Island, 44 miles from the finish. Then the wind evaporated and they stopped. This provided the opportunity for the crew of Investec Loyal (Anthony Bell) to plot a course that saw them sail past the leader and claim line honours by just three minutes and 12 seconds.

It was a disappointing loss for the Wild Oats XI team, one that drove home an important point to all competitors: if, in a perfect world, Wild Oats XI had been just one second a mile faster from start to finish, she could have been first to finish.

The Rolex Sydney Hobart race starts on Sydney Harbour at 1pm on Boxing Day.