Past Cruising Yacht Club of Australia Commodore, Matt Allen, has spent a year carefully working out what it will take to win the Rolex Sydney Hobart, and his answer is his brand new Carkeek 60 Ichi Ban.
Designing and building the boat, all the decisions and questions and answers that it involved tells us a lot about Matt Allen - the true nature of a Rolex Sydney Hobart - and Australian offshore yachting.
'I worked out that about 70 percent of our racing is ocean racing and 30 percent round-the-buoys, and I wanted a boat that could do both,' Allen says.
'We wanted a boat big enough to get away from the TP52s, so that even if you were on the wrong side of the first shift, you should be able to dictate your own race. We saw that people who built 55 footers had to get the first shift right or they were slowed down.
'Also, the ability to shift sails and be manageable both from a crew and cost point of view eliminates bigger sails and canting keels, which all add expense, so 60 feet looked about right,' Allen says.
'We also found that with a 60 footer, you generally get to Hobart around lunchtime, and that’s a good time to arrive, when there is plenty of sea breeze in the Derwent River. The 52s often get there very late at night or early morning, when the wind can be fluky or shut down, and the 70s can be on the other side of that as well.'
Allen says there is a line honours category for boats under 18.5 metres – and Ichi Ban came in at 18.499 metres.
To do both kinds of racing meant an all-round boat, good to windward and downwind. 'No particular strengths or weaknesses,' says Allen. 'She has a powerful hull and plenty of sail area so should be good in all conditions.
'Obviously a VO70 is very fast reaching, and if we get a hard reach to Hobart, they will be a long way ahead of us, but on the east coast of Australia you are generally going up-wind or downwind. The odd bit of reaching doesn’t last that long.'
Ichi Ban’s owner says they did a lot of analysis of both wind direction and speed and found that mostly the winds are lighter in the race than generally thought, too.
So now Allen had a very detailed, highly researched concept in his head. Finding a designer to give the concept substance, he says, was the hardest part of the whole project.
'I spoke to a lot of designers, but many weren’t confident about doing a boat that size. You want a designer you can talk to and is on the same wavelength.'
South African designer Shaun Carkeek had been doing a lot of work on the idea of an IRC 55 foot boat without the box restrictions of a TP52 or a Volvo70. 'He’d already done a lot of conceptual thought on the smaller boat. I felt he was the one to pick.'
Allen also decided to go for hydraulic rather than traditional man-powered winches, but again only after a full study of the pros and cons. With hydraulics, you have to run a bigger, heavier motor most of the time - which means a rating penalty - and there is extra weight and complexity of the hydraulics themselves.
However, it means more crew on the rail instead of mid-ships grinding winches, and the crew can concentrate on steering and trimming the boat. It also means that on a long downwind ride, trimming the spinnaker over every wave, hydraulics don’t get tired. Men do.
'We thought this might be one of those things where what might be good for ocean racing might not be good for round-the-buoys, but the more we looked into it we saw that it suited both,' Allen says.
The Ichi Ban saga then moved to Dubai, and Premier Composite Technologies. While they were building her, Allen scoured the world for the best gear he could find. Winches in Italy, mast and rigging in New Zealand, sails mostly made in America.
'You’ve got to pick the right sail maker and designers, and we thought North Sails were the best team for what we wanted,' Allen reckons.
North’s used the same computer system as Southern Spars, who were building Ichi Ban’s mast in Auckland. There was constant interplay between mast and sail designers through the whole process.
Eventually, when the boat from North Africa, sails from North America and rig from New Zealand all came together in Sydney, all that meticulous planning and design paid off.
'They fitted perfectly,' Allen declares. 'The sails’ luff curves were right, the sails fitted; there was no need to send them back to the loft for adjustment.
'Ten years ago you could get close, but never that precise, and you had to work out whether to change the sail to fit the mast or change the mast to fit the sail. That all takes time.'
And with a late November launch and a Boxing Day start, time was in short supply.
Over the year, Allen had been working with Gordon Maguire, the former sailing master of Stephen Ainsworth’s hugely successful but now retired Loki, to meld a crew from former Loki and Ichi Ban alumni.
'It was a bit like my old merchant banking days,' Allen quips, 'mergers and acquisitions'.
'We tried to build a crew that is readily available to sail in Sydney. In recent years, with my old VO70, we had been bringing in people from all over the world for races. We will still do a bit of that; it is good to have the Volvo guys around.
'You don’t need everyone to live in Sydney though. You know when the race starts and roughly when it finishes, so we can bring them in because airfares are cheap these days.
'Anthony Merrington is an Aussie living in New Zealand. The airfare is only a couple of hundred dollars. We won’t bring him over for every race, but you can do that for all the major races.'
Still, even with a crew oozing thousands of racing miles, getting the new boat fully up to speed in a short time is a huge task.
'We can get to 98.5 percent pretty quickly,' Allen says, 'but that final 1.5 percent takes time. You might get to 100 percent sometimes, but then you won’t change gear accurately enough or quickly enough to keep it 100 percent. That is not so important in an ocean race.
'If we were going to do a full-on windward/leeward regatta, you’d think we were not quite ready, but in an ocean race I think we are fine.'
The start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will be broadcast live on the Seven Network throughout Australia, the Australia Network throughout the Asia Pacific Region and webcast live to a global audience on Yahoo!7 from 12.30pm until 200pm on Boxing Day.