The low pressure system remnant of a tropical cyclone crossing the continent is setting up a tricky wind pattern for the Rolex Sydney Hobart race, for its Boxing Day start.While the scenario is still changing, pockets of light breeze to be negotiated between two major wind systems look to have removed the prospects of a record-breaking run by one of the hi-tech collection of maxi yachts in the fleet.
Barry Hanstrum, senior forecaster for the NSW Bureau of Meteorology, predicts that the fleet of 100 boats will probably start in a light to moderate southerly, which would mean a spectacular spinnaker start in Sydney Harbour on Saturday, then a beat to windward in 10-20 knots as the fleet reaches the open sea.
While the wind would back to the east - northeast offshore, a low pressure trough would create lighter air inshore. A west to southwest change on Sunday night in the Bass Strait of 20-30 knots would continue into Monday, December 28.
Yendys' Will Oxley, one of the fleet's top navigators with 11 Hobart races on his CV, sees the situation on the first day as even trickier. "It looks quite important to stay in the east; in the west you are likely to run out of breeze earlier. The big boats will get into the nor'easterly breeze, clear of the trough, first."
But Oxley believes the big boats will run out of breeze and "park" in the lee of the Tasmanian coast. "I think the race is going to be won or lost off the Tasmanian coast with the transitioning of that light wind area into the new breeze that comes on the 28th."
Against the forecast and form shown in the Rolex Rating warm-up regattas, the two well-prepared, settled, Reichel/Pugh 100s Wild Oats XI (Bob Oatley) and Alfa Romeo (Neville Crichton) will lead the charge of the seven maxis towards the line honours finishing gun on Battery Point, Hobart.
The forecast, with its mix of light weather, does not suit Mike Slade's Farr 100 ICAP Leopard, a great upwind performer. "We'd like strong upwind for the first 12 hours and then when you look down to Gabo Island going into Bass Strait, there's pockets there of intense weakness and you could sit there for five hours," said Slade.
"I've done that in this race in the 1990's and the boys that had gone offshore in a different breeze came in six hours ahead of us."
Top prospects for the race's major prize, the Tattersall's Cup for the overall winner on IRC handicap, are to be found in IRC division one, the 50 to 63 footers.
Among these are the TP52s, including last year's Tattersall's Cup winner Quest (Bob Steel), Ragamuffin (Syd Fischer), Cougar II (Alan Whiteley), all Farr designs. Others include the Reichel/Pugh near sisterships Loki (Stephen Ainsworth), R/P63 and Limit (Alan Brierty), R/P62; Farr 55 Living Doll (Michael Hiatt); R/P55 Yendys (Geoff Ross) and the UK-based Judel/Vrolijk 72, Ran (Niklas Zennstrom), the overall winner of this year's Rolex Fastnet Race.
Ran's tactician Adrian Stead, who has sailed in two Rolex Sydney Hobart Races, said of the official race forecast, "We knew it was going to be difficult getting out and away from Sydney depending on where the trough lines up."
He said the weather was still evolving. "It's not a straight-forward race, so that means we've got to think a lot. We're going to see a range of conditions, which is good because there are a lot of boats here that are probably fast in one condition, slow in others. So I think it could be a well-balanced race."
Other overseas boats
Sole American entry is Rapture, another 100-footer, a Farr-designed performance cruiser, owned by Brook Lenfest and crewed by a mix of international and Australian sailors. Since launching in 2007, she has raced and cruised more than 24,000 miles on a world circumnavigation. In Sydney, her crew has stripped out much of the cruising gear to reduce weight.
Lenfest, who competed in the 2002 RSH in his previous yacht, a Swan 86, enjoys the challenge of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race. "We have had a lot of races around the world sailed in lighter winds that are very predictable," he says. "We like the unpredictability of the Hobart race and we like a lot of wind."
Back for the second successive year is 41-Sud, an Archambault 40 from New Caledonia, skippered by Jean-Luc Esplaas, who with the Young 11 Noumea, survived the 1998 Sydney Hobart Race storm to place third in their division. Last year by contrast, 41-Sud slowed for 11 hours in calms off the Tasmanian coast to place seventh in division.
Also back for more after suffering in those calms last year is Pinta-M, a 1972 vintage aluminium Sparkman & Stephens 41, owned and skippered by Atse Blei from the Netherlands, which has raced successfully in North Sea events and finished fifth overall in IRC on corrected time in the 2005 Rolex Fastnet Race.
Pinta-M placed third in their division last year after being becalmed for a frustrating hour, only three miles from the finish. Blei decided to leave the boat in Australia to contest this year's race, hoping for the robust upwind conditions that she enjoys most.
The Spanish entry Charisma, owned by banker Alejandro Perez Calzada from Barcelona, is on an around-the-world cruising mission with racing in major events along the way. This is another S&S IOR boat from the 1970's, which under original owner Jesse Phillips raced for the USA in the Admiral's Cup international teams series in 1973 and 1975.
Calzada bought the sturdy aluminium-hulled Charisma from a Seattle owner in 2003, restored her to better than new condition, fitted a new carbon mast and rig and began his global racing program with the 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race. She sailed the Newport Bermuda Race in 2008 and this year won her division in the Los Angeles-Honolulu Transpac Race.
A fleet of 100 yachts will compete in this year's race, which starts at 1300 AEDT, 26 December 2009. The Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet will have crews representing the USA, UK, New Zealand, Spain, the Netherlands, and New Caledonia as well as every Australian state.