Rolex Sydney Hobart 2011 0 They said as much would happen and here we are.
For the last few days all the top tacticians, navigators and weather folk have been saying that the second half of this year’s race is going to be very tricky, with some unusually light and unpredictable winds all the way down the Tasmanian East Coast for at least a couple of days.
Their predictions have been proven right, but that’s about as far as the weather forecasters can help in these circumstances, as a large spread of light and variable winds of this nature can be so local that the best forecasters will struggle to predict anything other than broad areas of minor pressure differences.
As CYCA Commodore Gary Linacre said in a press conference here in Hobart this afternoon, that can mean that one boat can be sitting in no breeze while another barely a mile of so away can catch a local breeze and be many miles distant in a couple of hours.
Just following the Volvo Round the World yachts as they wrestled with the transition in to the Doldrums in the Indian Ocean just before Christmas demonstrated how exhausting this sort of sailing can be.
Images of a bleary-eyed Chris Nicholson (skipper of the New Zealand Volvo 70 Camper and one of Australia’s leading ocean racers) and navigator Will Oxley (himself a much experienced Sydney to Hobart navigator) staring endlessly at computer screen weather files while their colleagues constantly change sails, hoping to gain every mile of advantage they can on their competitors, will probably be reflected on many boats heading for Hobart over the next day or so.
For much of this afternoon the two leading boats, Wild Oats XI and Investec Loyal have enjoyed good breezes as Wild Oats XI’s co-navigator Ian ‘Fresh’ Burns confirmed in a call at 4pm today, when Wild Oats was about 20 miles ahead of Loyal.
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'We’re still in about 10-15 knots from the southwest and we’re able to sail about 20 degrees below course to improve our bearing to Tasman Light; we’ve been forced out wide by the prevailing wind up ‘til now',
'This is about the lightest wind we’ve had all race. We’ve had breezes up to 30 knots and the boys on Loyal have been sailing a smart track, forcing us to sail a bit harder than we would normally choose to, just to stay ahead',
But that was all about to stop.
'It’s going to be a really, really tough night, because we have a very tough patch of light wind to fight our way through to reach the Tasmanian Coast…. and I can see those guys on Loyal (Stan Honey and Michael Coxon) plotting and scheming all evening to put us in a tough spot.'
'We’ve got a large 50-60 mile wide stretch of light wind ahead; how we negotiate that is going to decide what we get and when.'
And maintaining momentum is essential as ‘Fresh’ reiterates, 'The problem with these big boats is that in under 5 knots they can stop, and they’re very hard to get going again. The moment we stop, Loyal can start taking evasive action to get around what’s stopping us.'
Well that was the situation at 4.30pm today and Burns’ concerns about the weather and the competition appear to be materialising.
Yacht Tracker is presently showing Wild Oats XI having lost most of her advantage to Loyal, dropping from 23 miles ahead earlier this afternoon to barely a mile ahead at 7.30pm; both boats on a southwest bearing with Loyal to the east carrying more speed.
While Yacht Tracker cannot always be relied on for absolute accuracy (it’s just the nature of the technology), the following images taken from Predict Wind at 3pm and 7pm today show that it’s probably not far wide of the mark (the blue colour represents winds of 5-10 knots, while the purple represents breezes of less than 5 knots, that Fresh refers to).
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The 3pm image shows both boats still in breeze and by 7pm they’ve reached the 50-60 mile wide band of light airs that Burns referred to, with a teaser of more breeze close to the Tasmanian coast (in green), but dropping out further south; so no route that way either.
‘Fresh’ is understandably nervous about the night ahead, 'These guys can force us into a place we don’t want to be…this is the sort of chess game it can become in Bass Strait.'
As for the Loyal team, this was just the scenario that Stan Honey and Michel Coxon were hoping for and talking about, as the pre race forecast gave them real hope that there would be much more to this contest than speed and polished crew work.
Fresh’s fellow navigator Adrienne Cahalan confirmed moments ago that both boats are now in 'a patchy southeasterly to southwesterly'.
So the Wild Oats XI team has given up on worrying about winning on corrected time, this is the race to be first to Hobart and it’s made harder by the fact that they can’t ignore the possibility that other boats could get through the light patch ahead of them and Loyal if the two get too engrossed in a cat and mouse game.
Those familiar with match racing will also know that the golden rule is to stay between your opposition and the finish; but in reality that’s only possible if you have enough wind to stay ahead, so sailing in whatever pressure you can find matters too.
But we’re watching some of the world’s best navigators, tacticians, skippers and crew at work here, so enjoy the arm wrestle over the next day or so; it’s engrossing stuff.