Defending line honours champion Skandia has stolen an early lead, after the 60th anniversary edition of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race got away to the perfect start under a clear sky.
Grant Wharington's 30m Maxi didn't get the best start of the 116-boat fleet, but when the big blue boat tacked away to the eastern shore of Sydney Harbour towards the massed spectator fleet, she hooked into a stronger breeze that soon put her a boat length in front of Konica Minolta. Line honours is expected to be a hard-fought affair between these two Maxi yachts, much as it was last year when just 14 minutes at the finish was all that separated Skandia from Zana, as Konica Minolta was then known.
Not only has owner Stewart Thwaites changed his yacht's name, but Konica Minolta has been reconfigured with water ballast and a fixed bowsprit, and many pundits have marked the Kiwi Maxi down as favourite to reach Hobart first. Small wonder then that Wharington was tacking so aggressively on the pretender to his title. But while these two were engaged in their private battle, Ludde Ingvall's brand new 90-foot Nicorette, another line honours contender, was scorching up the western side of the Harbour unchallenged.
When Nicorette tacked back over to the middle, Skandia was still ahead by a whisker, but on the next cross it was the 90-footer that held the starboard (right of way) advantage, forcing Wharington into a speed-sapping bear-away behind Ingvall's stern. These two yachts were neck and neck as they charged out of the Heads on a close reach, bows crashing through the southerly swell and the wash of an increasingly unruly spectator fleet. At the seaward Rolex mark, first blood went to Nicorette as she swept past just three seconds in front of Skandia. Konica Minolta was never far behind, and as they passed Bondi Beach these three Maxis were line abreast, making majestic progress down the New South Wales coast.
As they passed Botany Bay, Skandia had eked out a small lead over her rivals. Sailing master Ian 'Barney' Walker will be pleased to have made it past Sydney Heads without incident. While he and the rest of the fleet face winds predicted as strong as 45 knots, Walker said the only thing making him nervous was the massed start. 'You've got to be careful getting out of the harbour, not crashing into a spectator boat. Down the track's fine.'
He predicted an even closer battle this year. 'It's going to be tough one, probably closer than 14 minutes,'
he said, although he believed Nicorette would struggle to keep up. 'We and Konica will go as hard as we possibly can, but with a new boat you can feel a bit edgy about how far to push it. Nicorette may back off . and they're also quite a bit lighter than us which may not be fast upwind in the strong conditions.'
AAPT, Sean Langman's 66-foot downwind flyer, may also struggle upwind but in the early stages of the race was giving the three Maxis a good run for their money. All four of these yachts were averaging 17 knots in a moderate Nor'easter.
Peter Dunda of the Bureau of Meteorology downgraded the severity of the race weather forecast at a morning briefing at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia. But it is going to be no easy ride. The sailors may have to cope with 45 knots, 4-6 metre seas and temperatures that barely make double figures on the 628 miles to Hobart.
Steven David's Targé might have been one of the favourites for a handicap victory, but two hours after the start the technologically complex Reichel/Pugh 60 pulled out of the race after water seeped into the electrical system that controls her canting keel.
Sailors from overseas were looking forward to the race with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. A crewmember from Stormy Petrel, Scotland's Corrie McQueen was relieved to see the forecast looking a little kinder but was still slightly nervous about her first Rolex Sydney Hobart. 'I think we're going to have to watch the weather quite closely as we go down the coast,' she said. Germany's Philipp Kadelbach was also keeping a close watch on any changes in the weather. 'We expected to use the northerly wind at least until Eden, but it looks like it's changing to the south already on the first night. That's bad, but the good thing is the predicted winds and waves are not as bad as they could be,' said Kadelbach, sailing on Felix Scheder-Bieschin's 49-foot cruiser/racer Vineta.
For young Brazilian Olympic aspirant, Edgardo Vieytes, his biggest concern was the temperature. At the helm of one of the smaller yachts in the race, a Mumm 36 called Abbott Tout, he can expect a wet and wild ride to Hobart. 'It's exciting, I'm looking forward to the racing, but not the cold weather at the end. I hope I don't freeze in the race. Brazilians don't like cold weather. We shouldn't be allowed to do races below 20 degrees,' he laughed. Perhaps the inclement Tasmanian weather would better suit a hardened professional America's Cup sailor from Scotland, George Skuodas? 'No, I don't think so. Nobody likes the cold weather,' said the six-and-a-half-foot man mountain sailing on board the 55-foot, Greek-registered Aera. But after all the preparation and the nervous tension leading up to the start, he's glad just to be getting on with it.
Rolex Sydney Hobart Race Record: Nokia DEN/AUS 1 day 19 hrs 48 mins 02 secs in 1999
To beat this Record the first yacht must cross the finish in Hobart before 8.58AM (AEDT) on Tuesday 28th December.