words - Kathy McKenzie
The new 30 metre maxi from Sydney, Wild Oats XI crossed the finish line at 10 seconds past 8am Wednesday morning, taking 1 day 18 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds to complete the course.

She has slashed an hour and 7 minutes hours off the record set by Nokia in 1999.

Surrounded by about 50 spectator craft Wild Oats XI crossed the line in a fresh 15 knot north-westerly, in what amounted to a perfect day for sailing on the Derwent River. Several thousand people lined the waterfront to welcome the sailors in.

It was a finish full of drama. With around five miles to go Wild Oats XI blew the top batten of its mainsail and, in the words of skipper Mark Richards "everything went wrong with it." Fearful that the flogging sail would tear itself to pieces the crew frantically dropped it to the deck while they raise a bigger headsail to compensate.

Yet despite sailing under headsail alone the giant maxi still crossed the line at around 12 knots, demonstrating the amazing power of these yachts. Earlier in the morning the boom vang had ripped off the mast on the last gybe in Storm Bay.

On shore, Mark Richards was philosophical about the last minute drama: "we thought it was just too easy going and something had to go wrong and it did. It doesn't matter, we still finished, broke the record and the boys are very happy."

Wild Oats was 15 miles ahead of the identical length Alfa Romeo.

It has been an extraordinary achievement for Mark Richards and his crew, who had only weeks to find out how to get the most out of this complex racing machine. It has been clear that they have still been learning about the boat as the race has progressed.

Wild Oats XI had led the fleet out of Sydney harbour on Boxing Day after showing exceptional speed in the smooth waters of the harbour. But within an hour Alfa Romeo edged past her, a setback Wild Oats XI navigator Adrienne Cahalan attributed to the fact that they were still learning which headsail to use in the choppy conditions.

For the remainder of the first day the two yachts raced neck and neck down the NSW coast, with Skandia well ahead of the record pace, sticking relentlessly to the rhumb line, the shortest route to Hobart. But as the breeze died early into the evening the record seemed to slip away from them.

The turning point of the race came at around 5 am on Tuesday morning. Alfa Romeo followed Skandia out to sea looking for extra breeze, but Wild Oats XI veered the other way towards the coast. It was a big call, and it paid off. She found some breeze and took off, opening a twelve mile lead on Alfa Romeo.

Adrienne Cahalan said after the race that she couldn't understand why the other boats didn't follow their lead, "I think Alfa Romeo was looking for more pressure (wind) out to sea while we were looking for the favourable shift." As the strengthening wind shifted to the north it was a procession back along the rhumb line, with no tactical options open to the unlucky Alfa Romeo.

"(Helmsmen) Iain Murray, Gary Wiseman and Chris Harmsen had a great game plan. And we stuck to it - on the first night to stick inshore and it really paid dividends," Richards said. "The next day we woke up to find ourselves ahead of everyone and it stayed that way. A great game plan, we stuck to it and it worked."

Throughout Tuesday the two boats steadily worked their way back into race record contention, with Alfa Romeo unable to run down her rival. Indeed by the end of the day Wild Oats XI had stretched her lead to 20 miles. "We knew if it was a downhill race we'd be hard to beat," said Richards. "Alfa Romeo was faster for the first 12 hours but once we got the spinnaker on we took off."

In flat water the yachts reached incredible speeds, with Wild Oats XI hitting 32 knots on Tuesday night. Richards described it as a "hairy" night with "lots of gybing and heavy air running. It kept everyone awake, that's for sure." The race record was looking in the bag. It all depended on whether Wild Oats XI would find enough breeze on the Derwent River this morning to get to Hobart before the 9:08 am record deadline.

So how did Richards feel when he crossed the finish line? "Huge, huge relief."

Did he really expect to beat Alfa Romeo with such a short preparation time? "To beat such a well oiled machine was a big ask, but we knew we had an equally good boat and an equally good crew."

Whilst Nokia sailed to her record in a Bass Strait gale, conditions for the 2005 race have been described as "benign" with the leaders in the 85 boat fleet having easy running and reaching conditions for most of the race.

Wild Oats XI is a Reichel/Pugh design and was built by the internationally renowned Sydney boat-builder John McConaghy at Mona Vale. She was launched only in late November and had her first race in the CYCA's Big Boat Challenge.

The veteran owner, Bob Oatley, did not sail in the race but the crew included many outstanding Australian yachtsmen, including Mark Richards and Iain Murray.

When Wild Oats XI crossed the finish line Neville Crichton's Alfa Romeo, a near sistership and early race leader, was about 4 nautical miles from the Iron Pot at the entrance to the Derwent River.

Photo Wild Oats XI by Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex

www.rolexsydneyhobart.com

www.regattanews.com

 

 

 

Published : Wednesday, 28 December 2005

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