A few days before the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, skipper of the brand-new maxi Wild Oats XI, Mark Richards, commented that winning the race on handicap was the real prize.
'It's a bigger thrill for a boat to win on handicap than to get line honours,' he said. 'Line honours this year is between four or five boats really. Handicap is between the whole fleet. That is the goal that everyone aspires to. All the guys up in the CYCA clubhouse with their photos on the wall, they are the handicap winners. From the sailors' point of view, that is the real trophy, to win the Tattersalls Cup.'
Little could Richards have realised that less than a week later, he would become the first skipper since Rani's victory in the inaugural race of 1945 to win 'the treble' - not just line honours, but the handicap victory and a new course record to boot. Many experts believed Bob Oatley's brand new maxi would get to Hobart at all. It was not an unreasonable assumption. You don't launch the world's most hi-tech and technically complex racing yacht just three weeks before an ocean race that takes you into some of the most treacherous seas in the world - and expect to get away with it, let alone win the race.
For that reason Alfa Romeo, a virtual twin of Wild Oats XI, was the bookies' favourite to win the race because owner/skipper Neville Crichton had spent five months working his Reichel/Pugh design up to speed. And when the two sisterships squared up to each other in the inshore series a week before the Hobart start, Alfa Romeo beat Wild Oats in almost every race.
Even then, despite Crichton's preparation, Alfa Romeo was considered touch and go for making it the full 628 miles to Hobart. Only if the 85-boat fleet received an uncharacteristically kind forecast did pundits believe the two newest maxis capable of going the distance. Waiting in the wings were the three leading contenders of last year's race - Konica Minolta, Skandia and the 2004 race winner Nicorette, now rebranded and repainted in the colours of the telecom company AAPT.
But the weather gods decided to be lenient and dealt one of the kindest weather forecasts seen for many years. Sean Langman, skipper of AAPT, said it was a dream scenario for the leading maxis. 'There is a fantastic opportunity for the treble with this forecast. The treble of winning line honours, handicap and the race record, which we haven't seen for some time.'
In front of thousands of spectators crowding the shores of Sydney Harbour for the Boxing Day start, along with hundreds of spectator boats and a swarm of TV choppers buzzing overhead, first blood went to Mark Richards, when he helmed Wild Oats out through the famous Sydney Heads two boat lengths ahead of Alfa Romeo.
Just behind the maxis, Alex Thomson and the crew on Hugo Boss were getting all the attention of the TV cameras and photographers as they started the race wearing suits and ties. Nick Moloney, the famous Aussie round-the-world sailor, was on board as well.
Further back in the fleet, the crew of Quest honoured their skipper, John Bennetto, who had died the week before, by throwing a wreath into the water next to the Rolex marker buoy, before continuing south towards Bennetto's birthplace of Hobart. The great sailor known to many as 'The Fish' holds the record of 44 Rolex Sydney Hobarts, a remarkable testament to his tenacity and dedication to the race.
Not long after the start, Alfa Romeo had overhauled Wild Oats by switching headsails earlier. It seemed that Alfa's crews' greater familiarity with their boat was paying off, while the Wild Oats crew were learning as they went along. Mark Richards and the crew had sailed little more than 300 miles aboard Wild Oats XI before the start - not even half a Hobart of experience to their name.
By the following morning, however, Wild Oats had turned the tables after a bold move inshore by the boat's co-navigators, Adrienne Cahalan and David Dickson. 'We went inshore, and that's where it made the difference for us,' commented Cahalan on satellite phone. 'We got a bit further down into the rhumb line down south and that's where the wind came in for us. We got a nice windshift off Gabo Island and I think that's where we took a step forward. We had a little more wind than we expected. We got the better case scenario where we kept some wind all night, whereas I don't think some of the others did.'
Surely it would simply be a matter of time before the greater experience and firepower of Crichton's crew - which numbered Ben Ainslie and Adrian Stead among the afterguard - would grind down the leader. But position reports showed Wild Oats gradually trickling away from Alfa Romeo. But as is so often the case, there was a sting in the tail as Wild Oats entered the final phase of the race. With just 40 miles to go, sailing into Stormy Bay, the vang wrenched away from the mast. And then just 10 miles from the finish, as the maxi entered the Derwent River in 30 knots breeze, a wayward running backstay caught the top batten pocket and wrenched the batten out of the sail. The mainsail was now beginning to flog, and the crew were forced to lower the sail and limp to the line under jib alone. In fact, such is the efficiency of this amazing boat, that 'limp' was scarcely the word to describe her majestic progress, as Wild Oats continued to make 12 knots into the wind with just one sail flying.
Helmsman Mark Richards raised his fist aloft in victory as he helmed the Reichel/Pugh 98-foot maxi across the Hobart finish line just 10 seconds past 8 o'clock in the morning. Not only had Bob Oatley's team taken line honours, but they had set a new time of 1 day, 18 hours and 10 minutes for the 628-mile course. They had shattered the Volvo Ocean 60 Nokia's longstanding record by more than an hour.
'Huge, huge relief,' was Richards' breathless reaction to winning line honours. 'We sailed a pretty flawless race. The fact that we had problems in the last ten miles is a shame, but that's ocean racing.' Alfa Romeo reached Hobart just over an hour behind Wild Oats, and Neville Crichton couldn't disguise his anguish at missing line honours. 'They outsmarted us,' he admitted dockside. 'We gave it our best shot. We've beaten them in six out of seven races so far, they've beaten us one. But this was the important one.'
Some hours later, the other three maxis reached Hobart. Skandia was third across the line, despite having suffered an engine breakdown and being forced to lock her canting keel in the centre. Konica Minolta was next, and had had a trouble-free race. AAPT broke her boom and sailed the last hundred miles without it. Whatever problems they may have had, however, the wind was at least playing in favour of the big boats. The maxis escaped the worst of a light patch, which was slowing the progress of the small and mid-sized boats in Bass Strait. As the fleet moved further south, they would then encounter winds up to 40 knots.
Quantum Racing is a DK46 that in a 'normal' Rolex Sydney Hobart Race would be expected to do well on handicap. Despite impeccable boat preparation, along with victory in the Rolex Trophy during the build-up to this race, Ray Roberts could not get close to Wild Oats's handicap time. 'I don't think we could have sailed a much better course than we did,' said Roberts, 'but the hard reaching and running doesn't suit this boat and that's why we weren't up in the money for this race.'
Like nearly every boat, Quantum Racing had her moments of trouble. 'One of our steering cables broke, and we did a few 360-degree circles in the middle of Bass Strait while we tried to set up some temporary steering. We laid the boat over and trashed a spinnaker while we tried to fix it. That incident dampened our spirits a bit, but the boys did a good job of getting things up and working again.'
For the most part, the conditions were kinder than the average Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, evidence