The maxis leading the Rolex Sydney Harbour race fleet cleared a barrier of light air and calm in Bass Strait in the early hours of this morning to reach away on a new westerly flow at speeds of up to 20 knots.
Race leader Alfa Romeo, a Reichel/Pugh 100 owned by Sydney-based New Zealander Neville Crichton, first to clear the calm-creating ridge of high pressure to the north of Tasmania, opened a healthy lead of 30 nautical miles on her nearest maxi opponent for line honours, Mike Slade's Farr 100, ICAP Leopard.
At 0700 Alfa was 22nm east of St Helens on Tasmania's northeast coast, doing 14 knots and on course for Tasman Island, 41nm from the finish. She had 150 miles to sail and, at the present time, is expected to finish in the early evening.
ICAP Leopard, making 16.7 knots, was still three miles ahead of the race record holder Bob Oatley's R/P 100 Wild Oats XI.
Alfa Romeo was not only on track for the line honours win; computer calculations had her leading the race for the Tattersall's Cup, the race's major prize for the overall winner on IRC handicaps.
Alfa, Leopard and Oats had gained a huge jump on the rest of the fleet. The fourth boat, Sean Langman's Elliott 100 maxi Investec Loyal, was 80nm behind Wild Oats XI, 51nm east of Flinders Island making 9.2 knots; much slower than the leading trio.
Tom Addis, Alfa's navigator, said: "We got the ridge pretty well. It's always stressful going through transitions like that but we did as much homework as we could and it all went to plan. Our aim was to be first boat out and cross (the ridge) at the narrowest point. We made big gains on the way out."
Ian Burns, co-navigator of Wild Oats XI, said: "We managed to cross the ridge as it was spreading up. We drove west to get around it, as did Alfa and Leopard; we never slowed more than six or seven knots. The guys behind us got swallowed and are still there. "We were last through the gate. Alfa gets richer and richer, looking like a handicap winner, too. It was a very calm night, pretty warm with a nice moon. And now new breeze is coming in quite nicely from the Banks Strait (northeast of Tasmania)."
Burns warned that the leaders face one more difficult wind situation in the lee of Tasmania. Tasmania's high interior splits westerly flow into a nor'wester around the north of the island and a sou'wester around the south.
"We have one more transition to go, when the northwesterly meets the southwesterly," said Burns. "But Alfa hasn't made a missed step yet and they are unlikely to. So far, the race has favoured the leaders and in all probability will continue to do so."
Five yachts have retired to date, and there are 95 yachts still racing. The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race fleet has crews representing the USA, UK, New Zealand, Spain, the Netherlands, and New Caledonia as well as every Australian state.