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BIA Discover Boating 2021 LEADERBOARD

Rolex Sydney Hobart Race – Sharpening the Swiss Army Knife

by John Curnow on 24 Dec 2016
Just love the kero heat haze... Turbine choppers rock. - SOLAS Big Boat Challenge Andrea Francolini
The stunningly pretty, devastatingly quick, and super well-sailed Reichel-Pugh silver pencil earned herself the nickname, the Swiss Army Knife, quite sometime back now. It paid homage to all the underwater appendages she had on her. Of course, she now has one less, with her version of the DSS being taken off only a little while ago, but there are still more than enough to get the point.

So as she has been off to the grindstone for a sharpening, as it were, it seems like a great time to talk with Mark Richards, her Skipper. Richards, or Ricko as he is best known, has been the fleet master of the Oatley family’s racing yachts forever. He was the Skipper for Wild Oats IX, X and XI.

Importantly, Ricko been at the helm for every Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race Hobart race line honours win that the Swiss Army Knife has enjoyed. So on the eve of the great blue water classic, which if they win again it will be for a record ninth time that WOXI has taken the J.J Illingworth Trophy, we got to speak with Ricko, as he and his crew set themselves for Hobart.

Ricko said, “The early morning arrival into Derwent needed for the race record is a kind of natural barrier. The Derwent can take anywhere from 45 minutes, to four to eight hours, so it’s a tough place. Quite possibly the most challenging nine miles of the whole race.”

“What are the chances of a new race record this year? It is really hard to say. We could get a 20 to 30 knot Southerly in the middle of the race, which could take eight hours, or it could take eighteen hours to get through, so we just don’t know. It is going to be a really challenging race with fresh Northerlies, followed by fresh Southerlies, and then back into very fresh Nor’westers. It is going to be a very tough race for all the teams, that’s for sure.”

“For me, breaking the record is the furthest thing from my mind. I just want to get the boat there in one piece, and do a good job. Simple as that. We had a really tough year last year. A lot of modifications, all very close to the start date, and we didn’t really have everything set, and we had a lot of guys who flew in at the last minute. So our preparation was not as good as it has always been”, commented Richards.

“We got caught with the pre-frontal change, and we had to get the mainsail down smartly. We had a few human errors and ended up with a shredded mainsail, and as you know, you can’t go 500 miles upwind in a Hobart without a mainsail. So yes, unfortunately, we had to pull out of the race, and it was very disappointing, but it is all part of it.”

“By contrast, this year we have had a lot of time. We have had all year, which included the Southport Race, the Keppel Race, and also a lot of racing in between. The modifications that we made last year have really put a spring in the boat, and we have had time to learn about all of those changes, and we made a few more changes last month, with a 500kg weight saving, and more”, explained Richards.

“DSS just didn’t work for us. It could take CQS to another level maybe, I am not sure, but look it just didn’t work for our boat. There was a very small window that it did work, but you are carrying around a half a tonne of weight for a very small window, which we haven’t used in a Hobart yet.”

“So we just decided to get rid of the weight, and when we did the bow modification last year, we effectively moved the mast and keel back seven feet in the boat, so we just didn’t need it. We don’t have a bow that goes down the mine anymore, and that was the reason we had fitted the foil, so we don’t need it now and have got rid of it.”

“We have now brought the forestay forward two and a half metres, and last year we had a furling jib, which we thought we were quite happy with. In the old days a furling jib was for cruising, and a fully battened jib was a proper race sail. I can tell you right now, this has not changed.”

“The furling sails weren’t giving us the performance that we needed, so we moved the forestay, committed to a proper, fully battened, #1 jib, and it has made a huge difference to the boat’s upwind performance. Sure it is harder to handle than a furling jib, but the performance is very superior. Also, with the furling headsails, you are tacking bare headed, and it’s a bad scene, so we’re just getting back to basics.”

Richards then added, “Look there is no doubt that certainly in the 100-foot sector, Comanche is taking the sails game to a whole different level. So to take them on you have got to be on the same level, and that’s what we have tried to do.”

“We have got five or six new guys on board, but they are all guys who have sailed with us before. We are a good, tight-knit team who have worked together, which is terrific. This is going to be important, because we have three supermaxi rivals this year, and they are all very different boats.”

“I think that Scallywag will be very tough competition in this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. They have done a lot of sailing, a lot of training, and have shown some good signs of speed. Perpetual Loyal has double the riding moment of Wild Oats XI, so once again, how that will pan out it is just so hard to tell.”

“Honestly, I have no idea of that CQS’ potential. It’s very radical. It has some features that I think could be very unkind in a big sea state, so who knows? They could indeed show us all up this year!”

Talking about their own journey through technology and the many, many modifications they have made to WOXI since launching in 2005, Richards said, “Over the years we have made a lot of changes to the boat. It has been our hallmark: the constant searching for new speed.”

“It has been a hallmark of a family. That’s the late Bob Oatley, his son Sandy and myself. We are all in it. You can go over the last 20 years, and as a group we have done some pretty amazing stuff. It started with introducing the first canting keel boat in Wild Oats IX and on from that. Bob was never to be one to be scared.”

“Sure we don’t always get it right. We have made some mistakes and performed some changes that haven’t worked out that well, so we have had to go back the other way. So there has been a genuine desire to have a go, and I think it has been a great result.”

“Ultimately it all means that we are very happy where the boat is today. At 12 years of age, Wild Oats XI is still a benchmark in monohull sailing, as far as ocean racing goes, and the whole team is really looking forward to getting out there and seeing what we can do!”

“She is a great boat, we are very proud of her that is for sure. If we sail her well, we can match any of the competition. Last year we were reminded that the key to offshore ocean racing is preparation, respecting the ocean, and also the yacht itself. It’s pretty simple. You only get bitten once”, said Ricko in conclusion.

Current routing, which has to be viewed in light of the changes that can and do occur on the East coast of Australia, especially at this time of year, has the supermaxis at 1 day and 14 hours. This means they will have to work hard to be on record pace, which is 1:18 and some change up at the Battery Point finish line. Note that this timing puts you at the Iron Pot at/near sunrise, which is not ideal for getting up the River Derwent, but certainly better than in the dark.

So we then have the maxis at 1:19, the TP52s 2:2, displacement 40-Somethings at 3:12 now, which has slipped out by about half a day as all things meteorological gel a bit more, and it’s the same for older craft at 3:12, and then the small 30s at a hefty four days and five hours! Some will remember back when even getting in by NYE was an achievement, by the way…

We’ll have more on all of this, as it unfolds, but for now the super all-important weather window does at least have a frame now. Panes of glass to be installed tomorrow, and then some paint will be applied. Internal dressings will follow in the next couple of days. Ultimately that is all code for we will tell you who won when the entire fleet is tied up Constitution Dock!

However, and in spite of all of that, do look out for a record-breaking Line Honours attempt, some hard charging downhill by the powerful Volvo 70s, as well as the RP66, Alive. Like to gamble? Get a sneaky bet on that the TPs will get the tap on the shoulder as the division likely to go for the Tattersall’s Cup. Now the chopper footage of it all will be very cool indeed, and no doubt the photographers like the legendary Richard Bennett, as well as Rolex’s own armada will be very fired up.

For now, the nature of the Southerly change on the first night is still far from clear. Also, the remnants of the Tropical Cyclone currently over the top of Western Australia will appear in the Great Australian Bight at some point, but the blocking high-pressure system in the Tasman Sea will have influence over that. Time will tell, so keep your head out the companionway hatch, for it has been many, many years since this set of conditions has been the overarching scenario for the race. Warm temperatures on the South-East corner landmass of Australia mean one thing at this time of year. Change! And hopefully not bushfires!!!

Ultimately then if you are looking for smiles yourself, then do keep a weather eye here on for all the latest intel on the great, inspiring, captivating and very historic, blue water classic… The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

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