The two Maxi yachts were neck and neck for many hours as they powered down the New South Wales coast yesterday and into the exposed waters of the Bass Strait. Skandia had been holding a narrow lead over Konica Minolta when she lurched to a sudden halt. Grant Wharington's yacht had hit a four-ton sunfish. Konica Minolta contacted their rivals to check they were OK. 'They radioed us, and then they shot through ahead of us,' said Wharington wryly. The Melbourne-based skipper said the steering hadn't felt the same since, but that they were continuing to push Skandia hard.
The two yachts are using different sail plans to achieve very similar results in the high-wind, close-reaching conditions. Skandia is opting for a more conservative number four jib while Konica Minolta presses on with a larger headsail. Nicorette is a few miles further behind Skandia and might have been closer were it not for snagging and ripping her spinnaker yesterday, a handling error which skipper Ludde INGVALL estimates cost them six miles.
Further back in the fleet, the high winds in the Bass Strait have been taking a heavy toll on the 116-boat fleet. Thirty boats had officially pulled out of the race and 15 others were seeking shelter from the 35-40 knot winds, giving themselves some breathing space and an opportunity to decide whether or not to continue towards Hobart.
One of the more notable retirements was that of Prime Time, David Mason's Beneteau 44.7, which was being tipped as one of the favourites for success under IRC handicap. Mason reported to the Radio Relay Vessel that his boat was taking on water. A broken forestay put paid to 31-foot Grasshopper's plans to finish the race as the smallest boat in the fleet. Two other boats have retired to Eden with injured crew who have since been taken to hospital - the reported injuries are not believed to be serious.
The Kiwis on Konica Minolta are spoiling Aussie domination of the race, and the British crew on board Aera, Nick Lykiardopulo's Greek-registered 55-footer, are currently 8th on the water and 5th under IRC handicap. While the list of retirements in the race continues to mount, all foreign entries are still competing, including Felix Scheder-Bieschin's Vineta from Germany and Jakki Moores' Team Lexar from Great Britain.
Plenty can and most likely will change in the coming 24 hours. Grant Wharington has made it clear that despite his setbacks with a sunfish, he will fight tooth and nail to defend his line honours success in last year's race. In tactical terms, he believes the outcome of the race will be decided overnight as the leading boats reach the north-eastern corner of Tasmania. It is here that they are expected to hit a wall of stronger southerly breezes.
The record time of 1 day 19 hours 48 minutes and 2 seconds, set by the Volvo Ocean 60 Nokia in 1999, looks safe for another year, with the leading Maxis expected to reach Hobart in a time of just over two days, sometime tomorrow afternoon.
Provisional standings, recorded at 2100 (AEDT) local time, 27 December 2004
1. Konica Minolta
6. Seriously Ten
1. Konica Minolta
6. Ichi Ban