Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race seven times line honours winner Wild Oats XI isn’t just a part of Hobart history. In equalling Morna/Kurrewa IV’s record she has become one of the great boats of all time. Where once she was just the latest, biggest piece of racing machinery, designed to do a job, she has become more than the sum of her hull, sails and rig. When her crew speak of her now, it is with deep, respectful affection.
'Winning a seventh race is a big deal,' says skipper Mark Richards. 'Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats XI is the most famous yacht in Australian history, I would say. To set a record like that in the event’s history is amazing and something we’re very, very proud of. The old girl still has the legs, that’s for sure, and the team did an amazing job. If it weren’t for Bob none of us would be here.
'This is one of the best wins you could ever have. There’s a lot of new competition and a lot of anxiety: no one had any idea how we were going to go against each other. To sail away from these guys throughout the race was pretty amazing.'
Speaking to the media just minutes after tying up at Hobart’s Kings Pier it was clear that Richards was absolutely elated, and deeply relieved. This race had threatened the eight-year-old yacht with so many unknown challenges from brand new, state-of-the-art boats, and the old girl had triumphed.
To the side of the media scrum, tactician Iain Murray looked on quietly. If Richards was elated, Murray bore an air of deep satisfaction and contentment.
The man they call the Big Fella has been with the Wild Oats XI project since it was a gleam in Bob Oatley’s eye. Throughout he has bought a sense of calm and a depth of sailing knowledge to the team that has been crucial to its success. Over the years Wild Oats XI has become more than just a boat to him.
'Wild Oats is a bit of an old girl now and a bit of a favourite,' he said. 'For her to stand up and deliver is special really. This boat and the crew have been around a long time and to keep improving the boat is a nice thing to do.
'I’m sure if you started with a clean sheet of paper now you wouldn’t build this boat but she’s a good all-round boat. She isn’t great down-wind or a record breaker or a reaching boat; she is a good all-round boat and coupled with that she has a great, consistent crew that generally gets the most out of her.'
Murray concedes that there was a lot of pressure on everyone in the days before the start 'with all the competition and all the fear of the unknown'.
'Because we’d never sailed against these boats and we had our own difficulties with the mast. The lead-up didn’t go as we wanted it to and we didn’t get the hours on the boat. It’s quite a relief to actually come out and sail, and sail the way the boat sailed,' Murray said.
Over the years Wild Oats XI has been constantly modified. There have been foils added and subtracted, a taller mast; this year the big innovation was a new hydrofoil wing jutting out the side to give extra lift in strong running and reaching conditions. There are so many appendages sticking through the hull they call her the Swiss army knife.
Murray says that when deployed in the final hours of the race when the boat was reaching at speeds around 30 knots, the wing added five per cent to her performance.
'It was worth bringing along,' he says dryly. 'This boat is very optimised now. The foils and the rig are substantially different. She is sailing to windward better than she ever has and with the new board (foil), even when we were going across the wind, the bow was up and trimmed and sailing fast.'
In those last hours Wild Oats XI seemed to simply blow off Perpetual LOYAL, the boat many described as the fastest maxi in the world.
'We managed to get on the right side of the wind a couple of times but generally you could see the boat was sailing away (from Perpetual LOYAL) all the time in a variety of conditions. Everyone is happy with that.
'Boats like Perpetual LOYAL have come with a big reputation: essentially a new boat with considerable modifications to bring her right up to speed. And Beau Geste, fresh off the drawing board, threatened to deliver a lot.
'But we are here.
'I think everyone in the crew was on their game this year. In the nine races this boat has done this was by far the best.' Murray surmised.