The Sydney maxi Wild Oats XI took round one in the battle of the maxis at the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race today. From a good start, and with smart tactics, she was able to slow her British rival City Index Leopard on the short beat to windward to the first turning mark inside Sydney Heads and then extend that lead on the leg out to the second turning mark.
As the yachts rounded the second mark, about 2.5 nautical miles from the start, to set reaching headsails and spinnakers on track for Hobart, Wild Oats XI led by a morale-boosting 40 seconds from City Index Leopard with another 50 seconds to Skandia, the third 98 foot canting-keeled maxi in the race.
Next came the American fixed-keel 65-footer Rosebud, another good starter, two minutes 20 seconds behind Skandia. Rosebud is the first of the new 'box rule' Storm Trysail Transpac (STP) 65 class to be launched.
The 82-yacht fleet started simultaneously from two starting lines set 0.2 nautical miles apart about 1.5 nm inside Sydney Harbour.
Mark Richards, who skippers the Reichel/Pugh 98 for owner Bob Oatley, steered Wild Oats XI into one of his trademark winning starts at the pin end of the line.
The forward line was biased to slightly favour the leeward end in the 8-10 knot northeasterly breeze. Mike Slade's Farr-designed City Index Leopard started well a third of the way up the line and was able to lay the first turning mark on one starboard tack.
But Wild Oats XI had enough leverage to leeward to tack over onto port and cross ahead of Leopard. Wild Oats XI then tacked back onto starboard, ahead and to windward of Leopard, then bore down to slow Leopard with disturbed air.
At the first turning mark, Wild Oats XI delayed her tack onto port and out to sea to again, and planted herself firmly in Leopard's air and accelerated away cleanly to a handy lead at the seaward mark.
Grant Wharington's older maxi Skandia was obviously underpowered after a cautious mid-line start. Wharington, realising that with the forecast weather pattern his four-year boat would have trouble matching the newer Wild Oats XI and Leopard for speed in lighter air, has chosen to concentrate on winning the race's major handicap trophy, the Tattersall's Cup. To this end, he is racing with his smaller 'pin-headed' mainsail instead of his latest square-topped main of the type carried by both Oats and Leopard.
American Roger Sturgeon's Farr-designed STP 65 Rosebud re-affirmed her credentials as a favourite for the Tattersall's Cup with a clean fast start that left her hanging in with the maxis and well clear of the converted Jones-designed Volvo 70 Ichi Ban (Matt Allen).
Ichi Ban hurt in the Harbour by working the eastern shore where there was lighter wind and less push from the outgoing tidal flow.
One of the Tattersall's Cup favorites, Alan Brierty's Corby 49 Limit, was about 18 minutes late for the start, waiting for owner Brierty, who is also the tactician, who had a hiccup in travel arrangements from his home in Perth where he spent Christmas Day.
When Corby's scheduled midnight flight across Australia was cancelled, the next available one got him into Sydney airport only 20 minutes before the start. A dash by cab and speedboat got him aboard late, but Limit still managed to be within the fleet leaving Sydney Harbour and in distant touch with the boats she has to beat.
The fleet of smaller boats starting from the second line was severely scrambled when 12 boats were recalled for being premature starters. Two of them, the Jutson 43 Another Fiasco (Damian Suckling) and the West Australian Beneteau 34.7 Palandri Wines Minds Eye (Brad Skeggs), lost significant time before realising they had been recalled and returned to re-start. Another yacht, Jim Holley's one-off Farr 40 Aurora, did not return and will be protested by the race committee.
An estimated 300,00 spectators, on boats and Harbour headlands, saw the fleet on its way on a perfect, warm, sunny summer day. Public interest in the race is exceptionally high this year with quite intense local media coverage for the past two weeks.
A traffic jam formed this morning on the New Beach Road approach to the race's host club, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, as spectators joined the sailors' families and friends to bid farewell to the yachts and board spectator boats.
After three and a-half hours of fast sailing in the freshening nor'easter, Wild Oats XI had covered 55nm and was 20nm offshore, east of Kiama on the New South Wales south coast, doing 19.4 knots and virtually on the rhumb-line course to Tasman Island, last turning point of the course before the Hobart finish of the 628nm course.
The northeaster at Kiama had freshened to 15-20 knots which propelled Wild Oats XI to a 2.3nm lead over Skandia and City Index Leopard. Skandia was slightly ahead, doing 16.7 knots and Leopard 18.4 knots; Rosebud was another eight miles behind, doing 16.2 knots.