Top international yachting correspondent, Bob Fisher, rides for the day aboard the supermaxi Wild Oats XI. To say he was impressed is an understatement.
That perfection in sailing is impossible to achieve has been a universal experience and particularly in 10-knot winds, as we are all aware. At least I was until today, but one race changed all that. This Damascene moment came as a result of an invitation to sail aboard the perpetual line honours winner, the 100-foot supermaxi Wild Oats XI from owner Bob Oatley.
It was produced by a rare combination of factors, not the least the highly experienced crew led by skipper Mark 'Ricko' Richards and an afterguard led by tactician Iain Murray and navigator David Kellett. This combination tackled the running of this constantly improved (over ten years) racing yacht that seems a constant front-runner of the Sydney-Hobart Race with a regular crew that ensures it performs as smoothly as a Rolex watch.
There was almost complete silence throughout the three and a quarter hours we spent on the race among the islands of the Whitsunday groups – not a single shout. Each of the team knows what was expected of them for each of the manoeuvres that were executed and the order in which they had to be done. And Wild Oats XI is a highly complex boat with an array of appendages and water ballast to provide the constantly high speeds.
These were staggering. The boat speed indicator as we beat towards 'Unidentifed Rock' off Pentecost Island was registering 12.36 to 12.54 knots, and when I looked down to check the true wind speed it was 10.1 knots. Of course the sails were perfect and well trimmed, but exceeding the speed of the wind on this point of sail is more usual in multihulls. (Incidentally an AC45 wing-sailed cat was unable to hold us on this 50-minute leg – we beat her by four and a half minutes – nine percent).
We also took a lot of time out of our two well sailed monohull rivals, the 66ft Alive, and Karl Kwok’s TP-52, Beau Geste. The gap to those two widened as we took off on the shy reach to the southern end of Dent Island, on which stands the only west-facing lighthouse on the eastern seaboard of Australia. At first a reaching jib displaced the flatter one used for the beat and then the big asymmetric, pulling like a pack of horses, took our speed to an excess of 15 knots (and still the wind speed was no more than 10.2).
Rounding the south end of Dent Island we ran for the next hour, often looking aft to attempt to discern our two rivals who were becoming entangled with boats from other classes in this 182-boat regatta. Our progress, still without shouted orders was fast and purposeful in the sunshine and we rounded the northernmost turning mark off North Molle with the windward-going sails set after a perfect spinnaker takedown and beat our way to the northern end of Dent Island and the passage towards the finish off Hamilton Island Yacht Club. We had taken three hours and nineteen minutes for the 40-odd mile course and the smiles on our faces were universally broad.
Nothing, we felt, could spoil our day, but the handicapper doesn’t approve of several of the items that make Wild Oats X! – a ten-year old boat – as fast as she is and reversed the finishing order of the three finishers with Beau Geste again the winner from Phillip Turner’s Alive. With glasses in our hands, when we had repaired to the dock, raised to the crews who had triumphed, the broad smiles remained on the faces of the Wild Oats’ crew who felt that nothing should spoil their day.
Please Bob Oatley, let me sail with you again.