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Rolex Sydney Hobart: Mark Richards fires back on Protest

by Richard Gladwell, 30 Dec 2018 20:10 PST

A normally mild mannered Mark Richards is still fuming 24 hours after a controversial protest against Wild Oats XI was ruled invalid by the International Jury.

Labelled a moment of redemption, Richards had skippered the 100ft grey hulled supermaxi to a line honours win the 74th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. It was her first since 2014, making amends for withdrawal after gear damage in 2015 and 2016, and a one hour penalty for a rules infraction in 2017. That controversial altercation cost WOXI her a third race record, and her ninth line honours win in 14 races.

So there there were smiles all round as Wild Oats XI glided across the finish line sailing at 14kts, just after 8.00am on the morning of December 28.

Grins from a job well done, as well as beating their jinx of the last three years.

But the smiles turned to grimaces 12 hours later when Richards was phoned by the Race Committee and informed that they were being protested for not displaying their position on AIS [Automatic Identification System] while competing in the 628nm race.

"We did an AIS check, there is video footage of Juan Vila [top Volvo Ocean Race navigator] doing the AIS check on the way out to the start", an indignant Richards told Sail-World from Sydney.

"When you are on board the boat you've no idea whether you are actually transmitting or not. If the device says you are transmitting then you assume that you are sending a signal."

Over the past decade or so, Wild Oats XI has become the iconic competitor in the annual race to Hobart, first sailed in 1945. The Oatley family owned 100ft Reichel Pugh design is one of the focal points of media coverage of the race start.

The other competitors know that if they beat Wild Oats XI to Hobart, then they will probably have won the race. She’s the boat to beat. The crews know it. The fans know it, and the media know it.

"We do the right thing for the club and the spectators, and every year we carry a cameraman aboard the boat', says Richards. "We did the AIS check and that can be seen on the website.

"As soon as we went around Bradley's Head the Channel 7 TV guys started live streaming from the helicopter. The instant they started streaming, we lost all our instrumentation. We lost our wifi, and a lot of instrumentation went down on the boat."

"The cameraman told us "sorry guys that is probably from the download".

"It is a very high microwave frequency and it can interfere with other equipment at times," Richards explains.

"Today, I totally believe that is what happened."

"We got everything rebooted and got everything going afterwards. We were receiving AIS, when you are receiving, you also believe that you are transmitting OK as well.

“The AIS had nothing to show that we weren't transmitting, and as far as we were concerned that was end of story. Our AIS was on for the whole of the race, " he reiterated.

[AIS – Automatic Information System is a separate device on board which takes the vessels GPS position and transmits that with a vessel identification code via VHF radio to other vessels in the vicinity who are able to receive AIS signals. It is a collision warning system, its range is very limited, but adequate to identify vessels to one another. It is a safety system, and is indicative only. It can also be used in a man overboard situation when a personal AIS crew beacon is activated.]

"When we got to the dock in Hobart and tried to work out what was going on. We found that the splitter box, that goes to the VHF antenna, used by the AIS system, was fried. It had failed. And I believe that our AIS transmission signal failed right there, point where it was interfaced to the splitter box."

"There is a light which shows on the AIS that you are transmitting, and ours was. The problem is, it is a VHF antenna, and I know from my experience in the powerboat building world, that if you don't have a perfect VHF connection, then the system becomes massively compromised.

"We believe our VHF splitter had been compromised through the video live-stream download before the start. We were receiving AIS information, but we now believe our signal wasn't strong enough to transmit with much range."

Subsequently Wild Oats XI found that there is a website that can be used to check AIS transmission strength, however, they were not aware of it at the time. There are various reports of other yachts also not showing up on AIS devices,

"We've sailed all year with our AIS turned on. Others have chosen not to - we've chosen to sail in every race with AIS on. We do that from a safety perspective and because we are trying to support what the club's are trying to do with showing competitor positions."

"Why would we suddenly choose to sail without our AIS turned on for this race, especially when this a provision of the Sailing Instructions?"

"Unless someone tells you that you are not transmitting, there is no way that you know."

Richards says they were told subsequently that Black Jack informed the Race Committee early in the race that Wild Oats XI was not transmitting on AIS.

"Is that true - I don't know", says Richards.

Trial by Media

The 2018 Rolex Sydney Hobart was contested by five of the world's top supermaxis. It was expected to be a sailing slugfest and lived up to its billing as the remaining four supermaxis battled for line honours - all within sight of each other for almost two days and nights.

The 14-year-old Wild Oats XI’ s knockout blow came on the final night, splitting with the fleet and taking a course offshore from Tasman Island, just under 45nm from the finish line.

On the dock in Hobart, Peter Harburg owner of the second placed yacht, Black Jack complained in a media interview that Wild Oats XI had its Automated Identification System (AIS) transponder switched off.

“We were very disadvantaged because they had their AIS switched off,” Harburg said. “And the rules say it’s got to be on all the time."

Harburg said he would not formally protest. And by 3.50pm, no protest had been lodged.

Black Jack did not fly a protest flag as required by the Racing Rules, and did not formally advise Wild Oats XI of their intention to protest, which the rules say they must do at the "first reasonable opportunity".

"After the festivities of the finish, Sandy Oatley, Val Oatley and myself, walked over to Black Jack to congratulate them on an awesome race.

“They said nothing about a protest or claims that our AIS had been turned off. Nothing. They just said 'congratulations guys, well sailed race, fantastic result, well done" - and that was it.

"I've got photos of myself on Black Jack with Mark Bradford, arms around each other all smiling. All good. Val Oatley and Sandy Oatley had a chat to Peter Harburg - not one word was said. We had no idea about this protest, or about the situation. We didn't know that our AIS wasn't transmitting properly - even at that time we still had no idea."

"They weren't flying a protest flag and they didn't say a word. Not word,” Richards emphasised. “We hadn’t seen their TV interview, of course.”

"When we were walking back from Black Jack to the hotel, a reporter came up and said "what do you think about the protest?"

"I said "what protest I don't what you are talking about. There was no protest."

"I was tired, we'd had a hard race, and I was blindsided by the question. We had no idea what they were talking about. That was when I made the comments about AIS not being mandatory under the Col Regs for ships at sea - which it isn't generally also for boats our size [or under 300 tonnes]. My comments were taken out of context, I was referring to the Col Regs, where it is clear that AIS is a voluntary navigational aid."

"It wasn't until 12 hours after the finish that the Race Committee notified myself, that they were protesting."

"David Jordan[PRO] rang me at 8.00pm that night to notify me that the Race Committee were going to go ahead with the protest.

“12 hours later, and with evidence that had been supplied by Black Jack. It's a disgrace and completely breaks racing rule 60.2, not to mention it was not any fault of ours that caused the splitter failure in the first place."

"The whole thing has been terribly handled, and it is very disappointing to hear Brad Butterworth and Mark Bradford say that we had turned our AIS off.

“We definitely did not turn it off, it was fried by the media equipment provided. We have since learnt that the only other boat with an on board cameraman also suffered from a similar scenario ."

Integrity questioned

More than 24 hours after the protest was dismissed Richards is still very upset that the integrity of the Wild Oats XI crew is being questioned. They include some of the top sailors in the world from America's Cup, Volvo Ocean Race and other topline events.

"We love this sport and it is very disappointing to hear some of the crap that is being thrown around," he said.

This is the second year in a row that Wild Oats XI has been the subject of a post-race protest. In controversial circumstances in the 2017 Race she lost the race record and what would have been her ninth race win, after being penalised an hour after a port and starboard incident at Sydney Heads with her close rival and world monohull 24hr run record holder, Comanche.

"At least last year we cocked up. We made the wrong decision not doing our [alternative penalty] turns. Comanche notified the Race Committee on the radio that they were protesting . We got to Hobart, we went over to congratulate Jim Cooney [Comanche owner] and he said straight away "we're protesting you".

"My response was "fair enough, that's yacht racing." The protest was properly held. We were penalised like we should have been. It was the right result, and I don't have any bad feelings about last year's race. We sailed a brilliant race. But we stuffed it up and paid the price [of a line honours win and an unlikely to be beaten race record]."

"But this one is ridiculous. It was badly handled."

In the TV interview following the finish, it was claimed that the other boats had been disadvantaged by being unable to "see" Wild Oats XI on AIS.

Essentially their claim was that it is acceptable to use a safety requirement as a means of deriving a competitive advantage over other boats.

"The mistake that CYCA have made is that they have introduced AIS for the first time this year as a safety measure. The system is just not that accurate, it's flawed and has limited range (about 12nm). There are a whole lot of things that can affect AIS which can only transmit on a VHF frequency," Richards points out.

"The rule is there ostensibly as a safety measure, yet these guys’ biggest beef is that they suffered tactical disadvantage - through a breach of a safety rule."

"Say what you like, but we have been sailing this race for many years with a race tracker, which is as good as anything available.

“The tracker is not live, but it's only a few minutes out. We were all in sight of each other for the whole race and at night we were within two miles of each other. We could see their lights perfectly, and we all knew exactly what was going on."

AIS working for duration of race

Richards did not attend the Hearing in person. "I hate protests." And in his stead former World Laser Champion, Glenn Bourke represented Wild Oats XI. The protest lasted for about an hour.

"We can very clearly prove that we had our AIS on for the entire race. We can prove, and will confirm in a week's time, that we were compromised by live-streaming from the helicopter.

"The system is VHF frequency. If you don't have a perfect connection then the signal is compromised massively. Our AIS VHF signal would have been compromised by the live streaming. We had enough to receive but the failed splitter box connection wasn't strong enough to transmit."

"If the Race Committee is to use a new system especially for safety, then you would expect them to be monitoring it and checking with competitors if they could not see them!

“It could even be up to other competitors to contact each other if a boat disappeared from AIS. I believe this is what they do in the Volvo Race. Then the system would actually work better for safety purposes.

“We understand that the Race Committee never looked at it during the race means it wasn’t a safety system at all. Plus it has come to our attention that many boats were not transmitting at times during the race. Why weren’t they protested by the Race Committee?”

"These supermaxis are big boats. They create a huge amount of work in this part of the world - rigging, sail making, spar making, they are part of a huge industry creating hundreds of jobs, let alone the profile that it gives the sport in Australia and worldwide.

"Boats should not be able to be thrown out of a race for this sort of thing [AIS issues]. There should be two or three means of communication, so that if someone has a problem given the technology issues - be it with software or hardware operating in a very hostile electronic environment – then there are other options. People need to understand that one small $2 component can take a whole system down. That is a component failure - not cheating."

"We are all victims of technology, now. Just think what happens when our mobile phones go down, everything stops working. It is a shame, but I think we have got to get back to the basic of keeping it simple, and having alternative options throughout a race. "

"It's not just Wild Oats, it is every boat in the race. It is a huge financial investment and commitment made in the boats and sport by owners and crew.

"I'm an amateur sailor. I do it because I enjoy it. The effort this year I put into this program, out of my own time is huge."

"The whole thing has to be a good experience for everyone. If there is a glitch, let's work together so that it is managed properly and doesn't jeopardise lives, safety or the integrity of the sport or our reputations."

While Richards is involved in the marine industry, originally as a boatbuilder, he is as founder and CEO of Palm Beach Motor Yachts, a publicly listed company employing 850 staff, which he launched in 1995.

Claims that Wild Oats XI's AIS was turned off deliberately are just cheap-shots, which quickly lead the online chatterati down the path of making claims about rule cheating, and then the imposition of draconian penalties, including disqualification for the race and bans from competing in the sport.

"I'm a proud guy," says Richards. "I've had an amazing relationship with the Oatley family for one reason - my integrity."

A lot of the mud aimed at Richards also sticks to the Oatley family, who are long-term and substantial supporters of the sport.

"We do enormous amounts for charity. The Oatleys are huge for our sport. They have donated millions of dollars over the years to Australian Olympic sailing and many amazing charities."

"These cheating and rule-breaking claims are easy to make, but it is not who we are."

"If Black Jack had protested, with the evidence we have today we could certainly defend ourselves and show that we had no idea that we weren't transmitting AIS. We can clearly prove we had our AIS switched on and in transmission mode for the entire race.

"I am very proud of what we have achieved in this race. We sailed an awesome race. I don't know how we beat Comanche, other than we sailed the pants off our boat.

"I would have been happy to come fourth in the race!

"They all did such a good job. InfoTrack is a big heavy boat, but they hung in through all the light stuff."

"We did a really great job at the end. It was very tricky sailing on that last night. It was very dark and it was easy to get disorientated. We just had to keep our boat going towards Tasman light. And that's what we did."

“We think the Race Committee should make a public apology to us. We have been accused of something which simply never happened', says a still irate Richards.

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