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A record breaking run is in the wind for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race

by Rob Mundle on 22 Dec 2016
Wild oats XI at the start of her record breaking run in this year’s Brisbane to Keppel race. Andrea Francolini Photography http://www.afrancolini.com/
While the weather forecast for the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart on Boxing Day suggests it will be “a typical Hobart”, where fast downwind will be brought to an abrupt halt by a stiff southerly change, the bigger picture leaves little doubt supermaxi Wild Oats XI’s race record time for the 628 nautical mile classic could be lowered by some three hours, possibly more.

In 2012 the 30-metre long “silver bullet”, owned by the Oatley family and skippered by Mark Richards, posted a race record time of one day, 18 hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds.

The current weather outlook for the start is for a fast run south from Sydney on the face of a 25 to 35 knot north easterly wind, a strong southerly change of around 30 knots off the far south coast around midnight, then a return to fast downwind sailing for the remainder of the course to Tasman Island, across Storm bay and up the Derwent River to the finish.

It is an outlook that appears tailor-made for the big boats in the fleet when it comes to a race record time, and possibly victory on handicap in the 91-yacht fleet. It also sets the scene for a great battle for line honours between the four Supermaxis – Wild Oats XI, Perpetual Loyal (Anthony Bell), Scallywag (Seng Huang Lee) and the recently upgraded CQS (Ludde Ingvall).

Given ideal conditions, Wild Oats XI certainly has the potential to lower the Hobart race record by a considerable margin. Earlier this year she averaged 21 knots when she set a new mark for the 350 nautical mile Brisbane to Keppel race. Her average speed when she set the current Hobart race record time in 2012 was just 15 knots. The top speed the yacht has recorded to date is 35 knots (65 kilometres an hour).

However, while the potential is there for a fast ride to Hobart, the Wild Oats XI crew need only look back to last year’s race to remember how easily and quickly things can go wrong. Conditions then were not a lot different to what is forecast for the race this year – a southerly change on the first night. Last year the crew was not fully prepared for the severity of the change. As a result a manoeuvre went wrong, the mainsail shredded and Wild Oats XI was forced out of the race.

“We are much better prepared this year,” Wild Oats XI’s navigator and meteorologist, Juan Vila, said at the Cruising Yacht Club’s pre-race weather briefing today.

Vila, who has won the America’s Cup and competed in non-stop an around-the-world race, said the crew’s approach to the southerly change will be far more cautious this year.

“Getting safely through the transition period between the north-easterly wind and the southerly change is critical,” he said. “The challenge is to not take the spinnaker down too late, and not put up the headsail for upwind sailing too early. It will be dark when the southerly change hits, so that will make it doubly difficult because you can’t see the change coming.

“The good news is that Wild Oats XI race ready. Our job now is to get her to the finish as fast as possible.”
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