There’s nothing like the spectacle of a flotilla of fighting Supermaxis streaking away southwards from the start of the annual Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race to snap us out of the Christmas torpor. In fact, with the time difference between Ireland and Australia, for many, the Christmas will still be meandering along as things get going in Sydney Harbour in what is, for us, the small hours of Thursday morning.
But whether it’s going to be a fast-moving spectacle remains to be seen. At least the wind is forecast to be in the easterly arc, giving hope that the smoke haze of the Australian bush fires will have been blown inland to leave the handsome harbour looking its picture-postcard best. And in recent days the temperatures have dropped to much more civilized levels to enable newly-arrived crews – such as the very Corinthian sailors who will be racing the First 40 HYC Breakthrough – a more reasonable chance of acclimatizing themselves.
But at this stage the wind predictions for the race are still far from precise, and as previous races have shown, volatility is the name of the game. So when one of the race’s proven stars such as Mark Richards, longtime skipper of the Oatley family’s 100ft Supermaxi Wild Oats XI, quotes a forecast, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to assume he’s throwing shapes to confuse his rivals as his skinny flying machine aims for her tenth line honours win.
For what it’s worth, today (Monday) Richards said:
“Today’s forecast indicates we will start in a light to moderate north-easterly, and then have a change out of the south during the first night. If you position your yacht in the right spot for that change, and your opposition doesn’t get it right, then you might gain 50 or 60 miles over them. That’s the big challenge.”
Makes it so simple, really. But in a race which is also being predicted as being as much about brain as brawn, all the navigators - such as Offaly-born Adrienne Cahalan on the Judel Vrolik 62 Chinese Whispers (ex-Jethou, with the crew including Howth’s Shane Diviney) - are taking about several “transition stages”, and the challenge of reading them right.
So in a fleet now of 157 boats, ranging in size from 33ft to 100ft, the possible successful permutations in the IRC overall handicap race for the coveted Tattersall Cup are only something which can be disentangled as the race proceeds, whereas the raw race for line honours is something which becomes clear from the get-go.
Like it or not, the SuperMaxis get that initial attention, and in truth they deserve much of it, for like virtually all the rest of the fleet, there isn’t a “new in 2019” boat among them. Australians are maniacs for modifying boats. Thus when we talk of the hundred foot Wild Oats XI racing for her tenth line honours win, we’re talking of a boat which started life as a 90-footer, but has been undergoing modification ever since, so much so that the recent potential disaster of being dismasted with significant deck damage just six weeks before the start not only was an opportunity to demonstrate the Wild Oats campaign’s powers of resilience, but the round-the-clock repair and replacement work facilitated opportunities for yet further mods.
In fact the only hundred footer which is still largely as originally designed is Jim Cooney’s Comanche (the “Boat from Ballivor”), but others like Peter Harburg’s Black Jack have received some surgical enhancement. For this year’s race, the lightwind flyer Black Jack is racing for the Yacht Club de Monaco, thereby bringing up the overseas entries to eight, and the crew includes America’s Cup legend Brad Butterworth and other mega-talents more usually associated with George David’s all-conquering Rambler 88, so if the wind stays as light as some forecasters suggest, Black Jack might well be one to watch.
In the body of the fleet, we find the Howthmen with their First 40 HYC Breakaway, registered to the ownership of Darren Wright HYC, and proudly flying the Irish tricolour. It’s a brave campaign, for the reality is that the entire crew are Sydney-Hobart Race virgins. When you’re in a fleet where people like Dublin-born sailmaker Noel Drennan on the Maxi 72 URM is doing his 32nd Hobart Race, while Adrienne Cahalan is on her 28th, this blank slate does loom large, but they seem to have been blessed into the quickest possible experience-acquisition programme since they arrived.
This has been facilitated by Wendy Tuck, the first woman skipper to win the Clipper Round the World Race overall – she did it in the 2017-2018 edition. These days, she has a key introductory role with EastSail, the Australian organization which arranged the transfer of Breakthrough, and she sailed with the Howth team in their mandatory 24-hour offshore test which fast-tracked them into the Hobart lane.
Since then they’ve been test and training sailing as much as possible while the shore team of Ian and Judith Malcolm have been dealing with the myriad of essential requirements. Nevertheless, it’s something of a leap in the dark, and HYC Breakthrough will have been a big achiever if she does well against the other First 40s – seven of them – and the similarly-rated Sydney 38s, while anything remotely like a class podium position would be massive.
Meanwhile, in the exalted heights of the superstars, the combo of owner-skipper Matt Allen and Howth ex-Pat sailing master Gordon Maguire with the superb Botin 52 Ichi Ban 2 are still seen as a good all-round bet for the Tattersall Cup. But as ever, after close-fought battles out in open water, the final place may well be decided by the time of day or night you enter the Derwent River, with its tricky diurnal wind patterns, in order to get to the finish in the heart of Hobart.
Race Tracker here