It is one of the world’s classic offshore races. And its timing plumb in the middle of the Christmas holidays make it an essential safety valve for serious sailors being smothered in festive cheer in the Northern Hemisphere. For although it’s only 630–miles long, the annual Sydney-Hobart Race has everything, from its colourful in-port start on Tuesday in one of the most spectacularly beautiful harbours in the world, to a course which takes the fleet southward into colder climes, with every mile sailed bringing them nearer to the mighty challenge of the Southern ocean and its foretaste in the Bass Strait between the Australian mainland and Tasmania. W M Nixon looks at the prospects for the top Irish sailors in 2017’s edition of the annual dash to Hobart.
With just a couple of days to go to the start, the weather forecast for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race 2017 could scarcely be more benign, particularly when it’s set against the recollections of the many times that this battle southwards has developed into a crew-bruising, boat-breaking slugathon.
In fact, as California’s legendary Stan Honey, the navigator on the hundred foot line honours favourite LDV Comanche has pithily puts it, any change in the forecast can only be a disimprovement for those seeking easy sailing. The Bureau for Meteorology’s New South Wales specialist predicts that the race will start in a moderate sou’easter which will soon back into a favourable nor’easter which will blow the fleet swiftly all the way down to Tasmania.
Problem is, once you get to Tasmania, the long haul up the narrowing Derwent River to the sacrosanct finish line on the Hobart waterfront has the leaders trying to race in light or nonexistent winds which can bear little resemblance to the prevailing conditions out at sea. This is particularly so at night, when it’s said the Derwent is an old lady who likes to go to sleep at 10.0pm, and not really waken up until 10.0 am.
Thus the super-maxi LDV Comanche – which Jim and Kirsty Clark have sold to Irish-ancestored Australian international engineer Jim Cooney – is facing the crazy scenario of gradually pulling away from the three other hundred footers as the rising wind gives her wider hull extra power and speed, yet then the predicted time of arrival would have her coming into the Derwent just as the power goes out of the local breeze.
It would be frustration in spades, as LDV Comanche has the speed when the breeze blows. She showed this on July 20th 2015 when, as still just plain Comanche and in a Transatlantic blast under the command of the great Kenny Read, she’d a 24-hour run of 618 miles, an average of 25.75 miles which still stands as the Mono-Hull 24-Hour Record.
Jim Cooney is doing his eighth Hobart Race, and though the familiarisation period with his newly-acquired giant is brief, he is maintaining as much crew continuity as possible with such noted talents as Stan Honey as navigator, while Jimmy Spithill is also on the strength. And if LDV Comanche does get to the line first, it will be an Irishman who’s first across, as the hugely experienced Justin Slattery is aboard as bow-man.
In the generally-predicted weather scenario, in theory it should be possible - from a fleet of 105 boats - to pick a boat size and type which will tend to be closing in to the mouth of the Derwent towards 10.00 am, with every prospect of carrying a good afternoon breeze all the way to the finish and a near-certainty of victory.
And there’s a view that the TP 52 fits the slot better than most. This has sorted boat selection problems for Australian Sailing President Matt Allen and his longtime Sailing Master Gordon Maguire, who won his first Hobart Race sailing for Ireland in 1991, and has since become Australian himself.
Normally, the Allen-Maguire team would be debating whether to race their Carkeek 62 Ichi Ban, or their TP 52, also called Ichi Ban. As usual, both were entered at an early stage on the understanding that only one would race, depending on expected conditions nearer the start time.
But for 2017, Matt Allen has a brand new Botin-designed TP 52, and this latest Ichi Ban is the hottest thing on the coast, wellnigh unbeatable. So when in recent days the weather numbers began to favour the TP 52s, it became a no-brainer.
However, it puts Gordon Maguire in the uncomfortable position of being one of the pre-race overall favourites. Already, other TP52 skippers are calming their own supporters’ high hopes by suggesting that the expected nor’easter may actually become too fresh for the TP52s to give of their best.
Either way, it’s a burden to be the favourite. But Maguire has broad shoulders, and as someone who has often been on the Hobart podium and has already won overall twice, he’ll take it all in his stride.
And if it should pan out that boats of another size and type are favoured, Irish sailing has other options to claim vicarious success. For instance, it could be yet another race in which the enduring Cookson 50 hits the target. We’ll, we’ve one of the best out there in the form of Italian Vincenzo Onorato’s Mascalzone Latino 32, the overall winner of the 2016 Middle Sea Race.
Although their navigator, Ian Moore of Cowes and Carrickfergus, has already sailed 3 Sydney-Hobarts (and done well in all of them), most of the rest of the crew are Hobart virgins. So they had to do the Hong Kong to Vietnam Race back in October as a qualifier, and won it going away after recording a speed burst of 30-knots plus.
Even for a Cookson 50, that is is going some, but with Ian Moore being in a uniquely experienced position as the navigator/tactician who has been down the course three times before, watching Mascalzone Latino’s performance is going to be fascinating.
We think of Australia as an ancient place geologically, yet inhabited by people who are into novelty. But they’ve as much respect for classic yachts as the rest of us, and the 2017 Hobart Race has two very special Sparkman & Stephens yawls, Dorade from 1931 (when she won the Fastnet Race, and did it again in 1933), and the 72ft Kialoa II which started life as a sloop in 1963, but was a yawl by the time the great Jim Kilroy brought her to Australia to race to Hobart in 1971, and in a rugged windward bash, he took line honours.
Now owned by the Broughton brothers and beautifully restored, Kialoa II became an Irish favourite when she did the Transatlantic Race to Cork in 1969 as part of the Royal Cork’s Quarter Millenial Celebrations. Jim Kilroy had strong family links to the southern city, and Kialoa II did the business by wining her class and placing second overall to Ted Turner’s 12 Metre American Eagle.
As for Dorade, since her restoration by Matt Brooks and Pam Rorke Levy, she has re-sailed many of the classics, but this will be her first Sydney-Hobart. And it will be very special for Irish-born navigator Adrienne Cahalane. Last year, she became the first woman to have raced 25 Sydney-Hobarts. This year, with the 87-year-old Dorade, she is calling the shots on one of the most special boats in offshore racing, a boat which is both historical and yet still a potent performer today.
The final major linkup between Ireland and next Tuesday’s big race is, to say the least, unusual. We last took our leave of Mini Transat solo hero Tom Dolan after he had emerged undamaged from a pitchpole two days from the finish of the Gran Canaria-Martinique second leg of the Mini Transat 2017, and went on to finish fifth in Leg 2 and sixth overall out of 54 boats in the two part race, far and away the highest placing ever obtained by an Irish skipper.
Those of you who followed the Dolan story closely on Afloat.ie will be aware that Tom also runs an Offshore Racing Academy at Concarneau, and the Chinese sailing authorities selected him to coach two of their more promising trainees. He found that while they were brilliant with instrument work, they lacked a seat-of-the-pants sense of sailing, and he recommended they get as much sea time as possible.
One way they’re doing this is through the Sydney-Hobart Race, where they’ve linked up with Australian skipper Travis Read and his veteran Jarkan 12.5, which has become China Easyway. One of Tom’s students, Wei Hua Pan, has already done the race twice, his mate J Lui has done it once, and now they’ve persuaded Tom to join them on December 26th for his first Sydney-Hobart.
With the enormous potential of Chinese sailing, he’s intrigued by it all, and not least with the notion of sailing with ten people, when for years he’s mostly had only his own company out on the ocean. So although we’ll be homing in on LDV Comanche and Ichi Ban and Mascalzone Latino and Dorade as the race tracker gets going on December 26th, it’ll be interesting to see how China Easyway is shaping up too