Classic fleet for a Classic Ocean Race

Classic fleet for a Classic Ocean Race
Zeus II

One of the outstanding fleets of maxi yachts and grand prix IMS and IRC ocean racing yachts in the world will line up on Sydney Harbour tomorrow for the 1pm start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

One of the outstanding fleets of maxi yachts and grand prix IMS and IRC ocean racing yachts in the world will line up on Sydney Harbour tomorrow, 26 December, for the 1pm start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

The famous mountaineer and adventurer, 83-year-old Sir Edmund Hillary, will lend his support to another great challenge by firing the starting cannon,  assisted by two “old salts” who sailed in early Sydney Hobarts, Jack Herford and ‘Boy’ Messenger, firing the cannons to mark the warning and preparatory signals.

Between 3000 and 4000 spectator craft are expected to surround the exclusion zone for the fleet while as many as 500,000 will watch the start from the headlands of Sydney Harbour,  a natural amphitheatre that only two years ago hosted the sailing of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.  The Ten Network is providing a live television coverage throughout Australia and New Zealand with news reports going around the world.

This icon of Australian summer sport,  conducted by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia in Sydney in conjunction with the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania in Hobart, is the 58th sailing of the annual bluewater classic.

First held on Boxing Day, 26 December, 1945,  the Sydney Hobart was an early post World War II concept  of the Royal Navy officer and British yachting enthusiast Captain John Illingworth, then based in Australia, and a group of Sydney yacht owners.

The nine boats in that inaugural race were all timber, even their masts, their sails mostly cotton,  few had winches,  and their radios were ex Air Force that did not endure long in the salty atmosphere at sea.

One of those original competitors, Peter Luke,  has sailed his yacht Wayfarer,  in which he contested that first Sydney Hobart Race,  down from Port Stephens to Sydney to watch tomorrow’s start.  Wayfarer is berthed at the CYCA marina in Rushcutters Bay.

Many of the yachts in this year’s race have been built from carbon fibre or other exotic, man-made materials,  their masts are carbon,  even their sails are carbon or other high tech materials.

Despite late problems for several boats,  all 57 entered yachts are expected to start in the 630 nautical mile ocean race down the east coast of the Australian mainland,  across the often boat-battering Bass Strait,  and then down the east coast of the island State of Tasmania to finish at Hobart,  11 miles up the wide Derwent River.

The fleet ranges in size from the 30-footer Zeus II which won this race on Overall handicap back in 1979 to the six months old 90-footer Alfa Romeo,  a carbon fibre concept that is a quantum leap ahead in design and construction.  She recently changed her name from Shockwave.

Even bigger, but not quite as hi-tech, is Canon, previously called Leopard of London, which at 97-foot LOA (length overall) is the biggest yacht ever to race in the Sydney Hobart Race.

While the fleet of 57 yachts is the smallest since the early 1970s,  largely a reflection of the world-wide economic uncertainty,  the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia describes it as one of the greatest quality,  right across the board.

The Sydney Hobart has always been a race for everyone and yesterday’s Bureau of Meteorology forecast of relatively benign winds and seas opens up the prospects for many more boats in the fleet,  both in the high profile race for a line honours and the broader concept of Overall and division winners on corrected time.

With the forecast of light to moderate south-easterly seabreezes for tomorrow’s 1pm start,  there is every chance of a spectacular spinnaker start as the fleet dashes the 2.5 nautical miles to Sydney Heads, followed by a one mile close reach to the seamark. 

From there it’s “turn right for Hobart”,  although most of the fleet is expected to continue offshore for several miles to pick up fresher winds and the valuable south-running East Australian Current that will give the boats an extra 1-2 knots in speed until they near Bass Strait.

Over the next 24 hours the south-easters will freshen as the fleet heads south, then back to the north-east, a windshift that will favour the smaller boats with a fast spinnaker run in pursuit of the maxi yachts.

Traditionally,  the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race fleet encounters at least one “brick wall” on its voyage south – a south-easterly or south-westerly front that brings headwinds of 25 to 35 knots or more and rising seas,  but current forecasts do not indicate any major front until late in the race, if at all.

The general feeling among skippers and navigators following yesterday’s briefing at the CYCA was that the 2002 race will be one of tactical sailing and crew work to take the greatest advantage of the light to moderate breezes and, of course, the south running current.  

Tactical navigation will be the keynote to success as the leaders make their landfall on the Tasmanian East Coast,  even as far south as Tasman Island,  the 1000-feet high rampant of rock, 40 miles from the finish, that marks the entrance to Storm Bay and finally the Derwent River.   The yachts must leave Tasman Island on the starboard hand and also the Iron Pot, a tiny islet that derives its name from once being a whaling station.

The finish line,  between the RYCT’s finish box on Battery Point and a large Rolex buoy, is virtually minutes away from the CBD of Hobart,  Australia’s second-oldest city, its suburbs running from the foreshores of the Derwent to the foothills of Mount Wellington,  the sometimes snow-covered mountain that overlooks the city and the river.

Once finished,  the yachts will berth in Sullivan’s Cove,  the bigger yachts with deep draft at the new marina,  the smaller boat in historic Constitution Dock,  still the centre of post race celebrations, along with nearby waterfront pubs.

The record for the 630 nautical mile Rolex Sydney Hobart Race is 1 day 19 hours 48 minutes 02 seconds,  a remarkable time set in consistently hard running and reaching winds in 1999 by the former Whitbread Round the World racing yacht Nokia.   Her time was 18 hours inside the race record that had stood, virtually unbroken, for 24 years.

The US maxi ketch Kialoa set the original record in 1975 and it was not until 1996 that the German maxi Morning Glory bettered that time by a mere 30 minutes.  Then came Nokia’s time in weather that was perfect for her design.

This year’s weather does not look conducive for breaking Nokia’s record,  but a maxi boat like Alfa Romeo is so fast in all conditions that she could go close.

Alfa Romeo, designed by Reichel Pugh and built in Sydney by McConaghy Boats,  is owned and skippered by Sydney-based New Zealand businessman Neville Crichton, himself an outstanding ocean racing helmsman.

Alfa Romeo will start tomorrow as an odds on favourite to take line honours. She is quoted by the NSW TAB at paying $1.40 for a bet of $1.

“However,  the Rolex Sydney Hobart has a reputation for destroying the plans of yachts labelled as the favourite to win the race,' says owner/skipper Crichton, who will lead his 24 strong crew south in the technical masterpiece that is Alfa Romeo.

“For a start only once have the weather conditions remained the same for the entire race, which means that any yacht that is particularly good in one area and limited in other areas will be handicapped. Then those conditions can vary so widely that even a boat that can handle a wide range of conditions, such as Alfa Romeo, can be put in the shade if there is an extreme form of weather.

“For example, if there are very heavy seas, this will favour Canon, the former Leopard of London, while a strong following wind will suit yachts such as Wild Thing.

“However, that said, with this race renown for its changeable weather, Alfa Romeo is designed to be competitive in all weather conditions, and this is our advantage. Whatever the weather throws at us during the race, we will be at or near the front,” says Crichton.

The 2002 Rolex Sydney Hobart Race has attracted yachts on the register of yacht clubs in six nations – Sweden, Great Britain,  the USA, New Zealand, the Netherlands and, of course, Australia.  The 600 crew members come from at least ten different nations,  including Russia, Poland, South Africa  and France as well as those mentioned above.

In addition to Alfa Romeo and Canon,  the front runners in the race for line honours are expected to be the 80-footers Nicorette, Australian Skandia Wild Thing and  Brindabella,  the Open 66-footers Grundig and Broomstick and the Volvo 60s Merit Navigator and Magnavox 2UE.

For the first time in the history of the race,  eligible yachts may be in entered in the two rated divisions,  IMS (International Measurement System) and IRC (International Rule Club 2000),  and there is also a one-design division for Sydney 38s,  although they  may also enter the rated divisions.   For non-rated yachts, there is also a PHS (Performance Handicap) division.

IMS continues to be the designated handicap rule to decide the Overall Winner of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race for the historic Tattersalls Cup,  although more yachts are contesting the IRC division as this  rule continues its popularity expansion.

Yachts which use water ballast may only race under the IRC or PHS, although Alfa Romeo is not eligible to race under IMS because of the exotics used in their  construction.  She will, in fact, be slowed down for this race to meet the IRC upper speed limit of 1.6 but not using water ballast and using smaller spinnakers.

Leading contenders for the IMS division are likely to be the 50-footers Hollywood Boulevard, Ragamuffin,  Quest,  Sting and Nips N Tux along with the Sydney 38s,  Another Challenge and Chutzpah, and 30-footers Krakatoa and Toecutter. Another, yet to be tested, new boat is AFR Midnight Rambler,  a 36-footer that replaces the yacht the of the same name that won the storm-battered race of 1998.

In the IRC division,  Alfa Romeo must be considered the favourite to win on corrected time following her recent succession of line and handicap honours,  along with other big boats Canon and Brindabella,  and the other grand prix boats favoured for IMS honours as well.   In some cases,  the IRC ratings will favour boats more than IMS,  and Ichi Ban should be a contender here despite her rudder problems which saw a later replacement expected to be fitted overnight after being flown in from Malaysia.

Among the smaller boat,  Toecutter must be considered a strong prospect in the IRC division if the forecast conditions continue to favour the smaller boats.

But,  like Australia’s other great long distance handicap event,  the Melbourne Cup horse race,  the fleet for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race is wide open – with the wind and the sea often the final decider for this ocean racing classic.