Harsh weather continues to take a fearsome toll on the fleet in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race. After leaping on to a life raft this morning with the rest of his crew, skipper Grant Wharington is mounting a rescue operation for his super maxi yacht Skandia. No sooner had he made it ashore aboard a police launch, but Wharington took a flight over the yacht this afternoon to see that the boat had capsized, after the damaged canting keel finally broke away from the hull.
Wharington fronted up to the media in Hobart this evening. He was remarkably composed, relieved that he and his 15 crew members had escaped alive and unscathed. 'It wasn't what we planned for the day,' he said, with typical Aussie understatement.
'Canting keels are at the cutting edge of technology,'
he added, 'and ocean racing is a dangerous sport. We are like test pilots in Formula One and at this level things can break. We are fortunate to get away with our lives, and to be able to sail another race.'
Helmsman Gavin Brady was similarly thankful to have got away unharmed from the structural breakdown of Konica Minolta. With a westerly chop riding on top of a southerly swell, he said the seas were desperately confused. 'Unfortunately we got one wave with the chop and the swell coming together, and our bow stuck in the middle - and that was it - all over. I thought when I heard the bang, and the boat came down off that wave, I thought I was looking at OneAustralia [the America's Cup boat which snapped in half and sank during the Cup in San Diego 1995]. I thought the crack was going to go down the side of the boat, and it was going to break in half. It was pretty scary. Luckily it stopped where the windows are. We were definitely going to snap the boat in half if we carried on.'
With those twin retirements, the sole remaining super maxi Nicorette is making slow and careful progress towards Hobart where she could take a classic double win of line honours and IRC handicap.
The co-designers of this brand new and untested Maxi are waiting nervously in Hobart. 'I hope to see them coming round the corner here,'
said Maarten Voogd. 'We just hope to get the boat in one piece into Hobart. I think it's fair to say we have the same chance of structural damage as they've got. The boats are really highly loaded. There is no give in carbon, so if it gives, it breaks. There is no margin for error.'
While many have wondered if Nicorette's lack of proven sailing miles would be her undoing, Voogd's co-designing colleague Alex Simonis offered an alternative theory. 'It may be to their benefit that the boat is so new, because the guys didn't know how hard to push the boat, so they were not going as hard as the others. That may be what has saved them so far.' At current progress, and with around 80 miles to the finish, Nicorette is expected into Hobart early tomorrow morning (29th December).
Of the 116 entries, 53 skippers have now confirmed their retirement to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia. With little sign of the fierce wind and waves relenting, there will be more retirements. Sailors are beginning to realise that simply getting to Hobart in one piece is likely to bring them a good overall result. The race has become a test of seamanship above all else.
Keel failure has been the theme of the past 24 hours, but the steep seas also brought the first dismasting of the race. Veteran skipper Syd Fischer, who was competing in his 35th race to Hobart, reported to the Race Committee that his Farr 50 Ragamuffin had been dismasted due east of Flinders Island. Another experienced campaigner, Geoff Ross, pulled Yendys out of the race when lying in 8th place after tearing her mainsail.
While a number of the leading boats are following Nicorette's philosophy of tacking close to the Tasmanian coastline to avoid the worst of the waves, two notable exceptions are the Farr 52 Ichi Ban and the 55-footer Aera. Nick Lykiardopulo and his team of experienced Brits on Aera are lying in sixth place overall. In these conditions Lykiardopulo will be thankful that he can rely on some round-the-world racing veterans such as skipper Jez Fanstone to give Aera its best chance of reaching Hobart intact.
Despite the brutal conditions, few sailors have a bad word to say about this race. Asked if he'd be back next year, Stewart Thwaites replied: 'Every year I say it's my last one, but probably I'll be back.' Even for Grant Wharington, with his boat capsized and uninsured many miles out to sea, his enthusiasm for the Rolex Sydney Hobart remains undiminished. 'I'll be back,' he promised. 'This is a great race, isn't it?'
Provisional Line Honours standings recorded at 2150 (AEDT) local time, 28 December 2004
6. Seriously Ten
Rolex Sydney Hobart Race Record: Nokia DEN/AUS 1 day 19 hrs 48 mins 02 secs in 1999 (Expired 8.58AM AEDT on Tuesday 28th December)