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It's Christmas – Time to Race Big Boats to Hobart

20th December 2013
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The Solas Big Boat Challenge in Sydney Harbour on December 10th gave a foretaste of the level at which the 69th Sydney-Hobart Race will be sailed
It's Christmas – Time to Race Big Boats to Hobart

The Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race would be a great event at any time. But the annual staging of this 628-mile challenge when much of the Northern Hemisphere is lying low under the effects of mid-winter celebrations provides welcome entertainment and interest for sailors worldwide. The 69th Sydney-Hobart starts next Thursday, December 26th. W M Nixon sets the scene, and highlights Irish interest

Australia is a very large land mass packed tight with valuable metals and minerals of all kinds. With each advance in mining technology, the country's huge natural wealth is more easily accessed, and the general affluence of the relatively small population increases even further.

Thus while much of the rest of the world has been experiencing economic turmoil and recession for the past five years, in Australia it was only a distant rumour. And though the challenge of mining Australia's resources may be a tough business, dominated by some very rough diamonds, all round the coast of this sparsely populated continent there are civilised enclaves of sea-minded folk who live a very agreeable life remote from the harsh realities of industrial mining.

So when they go sailing, they do so in some style in their usually sunny climate. If they compete afloat, it's with all the exuberance of a sports-mad nation with a largely outdoor way of life. And when they compete at the top level, it's increasingly a no-expenses-spared business which leaves much of the rest of the penny-pinching world floundering in their wake.

Australian sailing is on a roll which is really only just getting going. Two of the key people in the three man afterguard of the successful 34th America's Cup defender Oracle back in September were Australia's Jimmy Spithill and Tom Slingsby. The Challenger of Record for the 35th America's Cup is Hamilton Island Yacht Club, sailing headquarters on the island resort located along Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Hamilton Island is one of many pet projects of serial entrepreneur Bob Oatley. And defending champion in the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race in five days time is the hundred foot Wild Oats XI, owned by the 85-year-old old Oatley, and skippered by Mark Richards.sydney1

Seen in the context of the Southern Ocean, the Sydney-Hobart course may look relatively sheltered, but it has served up some very rough sailing in its 69 years.

Wild Oats will be defending both the Tattersall's Cup for the handicap win in 2012, and her 2012 course record of 1 day 18 hours 40 minutes and 20 seconds, an average of 14.7 knots. But in the way of Australian sailing these days, those who would topple her provide a formidable lineup. The dark horse in every way is Anthony Bell's 100ft Perpetual LOYAL. With her black hull and black sails, it takes an effort to realise this is Rambler 100 re-born. For when we in Ireland knew this boat back in August 2011, she was very white and very upside-down, having snapped her canting keel at the Fastnet Rock.

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Black sails, black hull – Anthony Bell's dark horse Perpetual LOYAL was previously the all-white Rambler 100. She is seen here between Wild Oats XI and the Volvo 70 Giacomo (formerly Groupama) from New Zealand in the Solas Big Boat Challenge in Sydney Harbour on December 10th.

But now this JK design, still reckoned the potentially fastest hundred footer in the world, has had a complete re-vamp by original builders Cookson in New Zealand, and her former existences as Speedboat and then Rambler 100 have been airbrushed out of the picture. She's as good as new or even better, and she's keen to trot, with superstar Tom Slingsby included in her crew to Hobart.

Also competing in the elite hundred foot division is Syd Fischer's Ragamuffin 100. The legendary Fischer is 86, he's doing his 45th Sydney-Hobart, and his boat comes with quite a pedigree. Originally she was the 98ft Maximus, and New Zealand-owned. Some years back, she was in the Solent for Cowes Week under the command of Harold Cudmore. One morning there was a fine north wind, and Cudmore roused out his crew. He reckoned the fresh to strong northerly – a surprisingly rare wind in the Solent – offered the best chance at the Round Isle of Wight record. In those days, round the island record breakers – usually multi-hulls – knew they were in business if they left after breakfast and were back from the 50-mile circuit in time for lunch. The Cudmore-Maximus combo left after breakfast, and were back in time for morning coffee.

Fourth of the flat-out-racing hundred footers is Grant Wharington's Wild Thing, another former 98-footer which woke up one morning to find she'd become a hundred. She's been around the block a bit – it was ten years ago when she took line honours in the Hobart Race – and her skipper is no stranger to sailing controversy. But no-one could accuse him of lacking enthusiasm.

The fifth hundred footer edges towards the cruiser-racer end of the spectrum. German-owned by Gerhard Ruether, and Cyprus-registered, the Bruce Farr-designed Zefiro is fitting in the Hobart Race as part of a world cruise, but the word is that she's a wolf in sheep's clothing, able for 13 knots to windward in heavy weather.

However, with some forecasts suggesting a record-breaking offwind sprint, heavy weather windward ability may well count for little. But in any case, public interest is with the Wild Oats/Perpetual LOYAL contest, as the two boats are distinctly different, with Wild Oats significantly slimmer in beam. She's very much the people's choice, for though today's Australians may be enjoying unprecedented affluence, it's not so long since they were a determinedly self-reliant, can do, and DIY sort of nation.

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The slim hulled Wild Oats XI powering along towards the Harbour Bridge.

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Wild Oats is always Work in Progress. Her crew reckon her latest underwater configuration has all the look of a Swiss army knife.

So the fact that Wild Oats is always Work In Progress, with mods being tried all the time, particularly appeals to the traditional Australian outlook on life, and for 2013's race she is sailing with all sorts of performance-enhancing retractable fins which make her look like a Swiss army knife when she's in the boat hoist.

With Perpetual LOYAL put into action in her new guise only as recently as November, there have been few opportunities to see how the two star biggies perform against each other. The Solas Big Boat Challenge on Sydney Harbour ten days ago was entertaining, but even Sydney's extensive natural harbour doesn't really provide the space for hundred footers to give of their best. In fact, it was Peter Harburg's up-graded Volvo 70 Black Jack (she's the former Telefonica) which led the fleet, hundred footers and all, to the first mark, which shows that she's very much a contender to Hobart.

As for the tussle between Wild Oats and Perpetual LOYAL, it looked fantastic, and Oats had got just ahead again after the more powerful yet slightly lower-rated Perpetual had passed her on the beat. But it ceased to be a tussle when Perpetual shredded a huge gennaker ($170,000 to you, sir) which, as Anthony Bell admitted, was much bigger than they should have been carrying anyway, but that's what happens when you're showing off in harbour.

Not surprisingly, it was the smaller "big boats" which scored best on IRC in the restricted space, with the win being taken by Rob Hanna's TP52 Shogun V by 1 minute and 34 seconds from Matt Allen's new 60ft Ichi Ban. But as Shogun is currently in inshore mode and is not racing to Hobart, the winner among the Hobart contenders was Ichi Ban. And that is all good news in Ireland, as she is helmed by our own Gordon Maguire, Afloat.ie Sailor of the Month for January 2013 after he'd skippered Stephen Ainsworth's 63ft Loki to overall victory in the Australian Offshore Championship.

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Gordon Maguire

Everything about Ichi Ban is interesting. Her owner Matt Allen is a pillar of the Australian sailing establishment, as he's a former Commodore of the Hobart race organisers, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, and is current President of Yachting Australia. But if that gives you a vision of an elderly alickadoo in a blazer, forget it, the man is a bundle of energy with remarkable international connections. He is much involved with the Premier Composites facility in Dubai where the new boat was built by a team headed by Neil Cox, while the design is by Shaun Carkeek of Cape Town.

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Will she be on target? Shaun Carkeek's design for Matt Allen's new 60ft Ichi Ban was aimed at meeting the Sydney-Hobart race's special requirements as averaged over many races

The Ichi Ban team selected a 60-footer, as they reckon that the numbers over the years indicate that's the optimum size for the Hobart race. But as the Solas challenge showed, it also does very nicely for shorter stuff while avoiding the huge expenditure of bigger boats.

There's no lack of bigger craft in the race to Hobart, and here there's further Irish interest, as the eight boats in the Clipper Challenge are involved for the first time, taking on the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race as part of their 17 stage round the world venture, which gets to Derry/Londonderry at the end of June.

It's a stroke of genius on the part of Robin Knox-Johnston and his team, as it puts their Clipper series right into the middle of mainstream sailing. Times was when sailors and sports writers were a bit sniffy about the Clipper project. In fact, one newspaper sports editor dismissed it as a sporting challenge equivalent to racing a fleet of tourist buses filled with paying passengers from Dublin to Killarney.

Personally, I reckon racing tour buses down the Killarney road would be very sporting indeed, but never mind. As it is, with every determined staging of the Clipper Challenge, it has risen in stature. Out in Australia, they think very highly of it indeed, and now with our own Sean McCarter of Lough Swilly YC skippering the home team's boat Derry-Londonderry-Doire (or DLDD for short) interest here is rising all the time.

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Clipper skipper Sean McCarter as he was aged four, and already at the helm in Lough Swilly in 1984

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Sean McCarter in command of Derry-Londonderry-Doire during the current Clipper Race series round the world. Photo: Clodagh Whelan

Sean is 31, but he first featured in the pages of Afloat when he was a very junior helm of four years old in a 1984 feature we did about Lough Swilly. He seems to have been sailing pretty much continuously ever since, and has built up a very loyal crew following among those who have sailed on Derry-Londonderry-Doire, particularly impressing with his capable leadership when, after a knockdown on the very stormy leg from Cape Town to Albany in southwest Australia, they'd to divert to Port Elizabeth in South Africa with injured crewmembers

But then they pressed on for Albany, a port even more appreciated than most when they reached it. It was quite a party, as DLDD's Irish crewmembers include Conor O'Byrne, the Guard who is going all the way round, and Clodagh Whelan of Poolbeg Y & BC, who has rewarded herself with three Clipper ocean stages in celebration of a significant birthday landmark. It's a significant birthday for sure, but the sailing experience has to be quite something to make it special, for since she took up sailing twelve years ago, Clodagh has managed a minimum of a thousand offshore miles every year, including three round Irelands and three Dun Laoghaire-Dingles. Her current berth out of Poolbeg is on Eamon Flanagan's db34 Decibel, but Decibel will have to wait for her crewing services until July 2014, as she will be re-joining DLDD for June's Transatlantic leg to Ireland.

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"We're here". Conor O'Byrne tired but very happy as DLDD reaches Albany after the event-filled passage from Cape Town. The moustache was grown for Movember. Photo: Clodagh Whelan

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Clodagh Whelan aboard DLDD. In 2013, she fulfilled her personal objective of a minimum of a thousand offshore miles per year several times over.

Meanwhile, like all the other 93 crews from boats large and small racing to Hobart in less than five days time, for those on DLDD it will have to be the quietest Christmas they've ever had, as this can be one very unforgiving experience for anyone who has overindulged. Then too, the challenge of getting out of the harbour and into open water unscathed can be quite enough in itself, as tensions are high and the adrenalin is pumping overtime.

With a fleet of 94 boats and the handicap trophy of the Tattersall's Cup the premier award, in theory it could be anyone's race. But with five days to go, it currently has the look of a big boat's race, as the biggies may get to Hobart with the fair wind all the way. That said, the Solas Challenge showed that racing the big boats up to their optimum level is hugely challenging, whereas the two very potent Volvo 70s Black Jack and Giacomo seem totally manageable by comparison, and astonishingly fast.

And then, just slightly further down the size scale, there's the new Ichi Ban, full of potential, but still new. Extremely new. As Gordon Maguire reported in typically under-stated style on 17th December in an update to the folks back home: ".....we have been super busy, working seven days a week to get the boat ready for Sydney to Hobart. It's coming together very nicely....."

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WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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