The Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet has been enjoying a magical sleigh ride for the first eight hours of the 628 nautical mile race which began from Sydney Harbour in spectacular fashion this afternoon.
After a fast upwind start, the yachts have enjoyed downhill running this afternoon and evening in a 20 knot northerly wind that has seen the maxis at the front reaching speeds of 22 knots.
In these conditions the tactical decisions have been easy. Go south as fast as you can. You could throw the proverbial blanket over the yachts in each division as they have universally chosen the fastest angle south, to seaward of the rhumbline.
As expected the Sydney maxi Wild Oats XI, skippered by Mark Richards, has excelled in the fresh spinnaker ride. After leading the fleet out of the Harbour she has maintained her lead over Mike Slade’s UK City Index Leopard and Grant Wharington’s Skandia, both about eight miles astern of Wild Oats XI, with the latter 15 miles further offshore.
Ian Burns, navigator on Wild Oats XI says they are not surprised that their rivals are so near. 'The boats are quite close in performance in stronger, running breezes. I think nightfall usually sees people trying to gain an advantage.'
Graeme Taylor, Skandia’s navigator says that he is very happy with their position. 'We are exactly where I wanted us to be at this stage of the race. We are expecting it to get windier and windier up until 2am (when a front is expected to reach the lead boats) and we will just look to position ourselves in the right place for the transition.'
Slade is not quite so sanguine. 'These conditions suit Wild Oats XI and Skandia better than us. Wild Oats XI is sailing lower than us so she is making a better course for Tasman Island. We have to go a little further out,' he said tonight.
'Wild Oats XI is looking very good for line honours. It doesn’t look as though we will get much reaching or upwind work this year so I can’t see any prognosis that will change things for us.'
At 9pm Wild Oats XI was 70 miles SE of Jervis Bay.
Twenty miles further back the American Farr STP 65 Rosebud is neck and neck with Matt Allen’s Ichi Ban, the Sydney based modified Volvo 70, with the American boat enjoying a slight advantage.
Today’s racing has been all about pure boat speed and angle to the wind. During the night the fleet will sail into a light to moderate southerly which is when the race will begin to develop into a more tactical affair, as navigators calculate their favoured angle into the Tasmanian coast and Tasman Island.
Already a number of boats, including City Limit Leopard and Ichi Ban are looking at giving Gabo Island a wide berth, fearful that there will be little wind closer to shore when the change does come. Slade is certainly hoping that it may yet turn out that his current disadvantage to Wild Oats XI, that she has been able to sail a more direct course to Tasman Island, may yet prove to be an advantage.
The first casualty of the race is Andrew Buckland’s Mr Kite which retired at 7.40pm this evening with a broken rudder. Shortly after, at 9.10pm, Alex Whitworth advised the race committee that Berrimilla was retiring due to her spinnaker wrapping itself around the mast. Both boats are returning to Sydney.
On Michele Colenso’s Capriccio of Rhu, a crewman has severed the tip of his finger and has been taken to a Wollongong hospital to seek medical attention. Colenso and her crew will stay overnight in Wollongong Harbour and decide in the morning whether they will continue racing. Capriccio is the only entrant in the cruising division.