by Jim Gale
The weather forecast for the upcoming Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2012 will certainly give big boats a considerable edge in the 628-nautical mile off shore ocean racing as 20-knot southerly breeze provides a humdinger of a start of what would be a fast and furious edition of Australia’s premier sailing classic.
'The winner of the 2012 Rolex Sydney Hobart is likely to come from a boat 60 foot or larger;' that is what Matt Allen, skipper of the Volvo 70 Ichi Ban, has taken away from the latest race forecast from the Bureau of Meteorology.
Because of the handicap system, some years the weather favours the boats that spend the longest time at sea. This year, the sooner you can get to Constitution Dock, the better.
Skippers and navigators from the 77 competing yachts gathered at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia this morning to be told that the race will start in a fresh sou-easter. It will be lovely for a sprint down Sydney Harbour under spinnaker, but presaging an afternoon of bashing down the NSW coast in a 20 knot southerly.
Further down the NSW coast, the breeze will start to lighten off, as the weather goes into the first of two transitions which will dramatically affect the outcome of the CYCA’s 68th race.
By Thursday morning, spinnakers will be out again for a rollicking 20 knot plus nor-easter, until the second transition, when a westerly front will move in on the second evening.
The breeze will again build, but there will be a big wind shadow off the Tasmanian coast, making for some very tricky tactical racing in the quest for line honours and, as it turns out, the outright win on handicap. There is not much joy for the 40 and 50 foot boats further down the race track.
As with the front runners, the long day of running and reaching competitors were expecting to enjoy on the second day has been cut short by the westerly front arriving earlier than was forecast a few days ago.
Press Conference - Mark Richards, Wild Oats XI
From then on, there is no sign that the wind will turn back to the north any time while yachts are still racing. There will just a series of west/south-west fronts moving through with winds in the 20’s during the frontal bursts, dropping off between times, nothing that will allow them to steal back time from the big boats already tied up in Hobart.
Not that Mark Bradford, the sailing master of the RP66 Black Jack, will be feeling their pain. 'Everyone is talking up our size range; Black Jack, Loki, Ichi Ban, Lahana. It is going to be a tricky race; a couple of transition phases where there will be some downtime, some stopping.'
'It depends on who gets through those transition phases the best,' Matt Allen, Ichi Ban’s owner agrees.
'I wouldn’t write off the three big canting keel maxis (Wild Oats XI, Ragamuffin-Loyal and Wild Thing) and Lahana to win overall. It’s wide open – it’ll be a fascinating duel, especially when we get off the east coast of Tasmania – that’s where the race will be won and lost.'
There’s nothing in this forecast that poses any real threat to the fleet. 'It looks as though it’s going to be a fairly easy race,' says Ragamuffin-Loyal skipper Syd Fischer. 'I don’t think we’re going to be knocked about too much.'
Some years the race is as much about boat preservation as boat speed, but Wild Oats XI skipper, Mark Richards, pretty much summed it up this year: 'It’ll be peddle to the metal - don’t back off - and take the shortest route to Hobart.'
Whether it’ll be a record year depends on those transition stages. When they come, and how long the light conditions last, until the wind cranks in again. To break the record, the lead boat will have to average just on 15 knots.
'The big boats can do 20 to 30 knots in that northerly,' Mark Richards says, 'So if it hangs in for a couple of hours longer than expected, you can be an extra 60 miles down the track. Or it can go the other way.'
Though their prospects for an overall win look bleak, what the smaller boats do have this year is the promise of a lot of tactical duelling with the other boats in their division as these successive fronts and lulls move through.
At any one time, there will be quite a difference in the strength of the wind, depending on where you are on the course, as well as how much south there will be in the west/south-westers. In the bottom of Bass Strait, and down the Tasmanian coast, tacticians and navigators will come into their own. In other words, a divisional win will be something to savour.
The forecast is very disappointing for the skippers of the TP52s and the more radical 40 footers, like Bruce Taylor’s downwind flier Chutzpah. The less exciting all-round cruiser/racers, like the Beneteau First 40s, will are looking good at the divisional level, as will Roger Hickman’s all-rounder, Wild Rose.
Press Conference - Syd Fisher, Ragamuffin-Loyal
Not that Jason Van der Slot, owner/skipper of the TP52 Calm, has given up all hope of an overall upset.
'If we keep the boat moving and keep close to the 60 footers, we have a chance,' he insists. 'We’ll be getting to Tasman Island just in time, around midday or 1pm, before the Derwent River shuts down.
'If we can do that, and keep the speed up, maybe we will be able to climb over the 60s.'