The Rolex Sydney-Hobart race fleet leaders stalled and stopped in calms off the far south coast of New South Wales earlier today.
The smaller boats came up on a developing coastal sea breeze while the maxi leaders and 50-60 footers were stuck inshore this morning, trying to struggle around Green Cape and Gabo Island at the entrance to Bass Strait
Neville Crichton's Reichel/Pugh 100 Alfa Romeo, which had led the race from Sydney Heads, was first of the three leading maxis to struggle into new pressure to pass Green Cape and sail to the west of the rhumb line (straight distance) course from Sydney to Tasman Island.
Alfa Romeo took off on a two-sail reach in a freshening east-northeaster and by 18:00 was well into Bass Strait, 58 nautical miles south of Gabo Island with 330nm to go to the finish.
The three leading maxis were achieving extraordinary speeds in only 10-12 knots of breeze and on course for Tasman Island, the last major rounding landmark on the 628nm course.
Alfa Romeo, making 16.7 knots, was 16nm ahead of ICAP Leopard, the British Farr 100-footer owned by Mike Slade, with Bob Oatley's Wild Oats XI, a very similar Reichel/Pugh 100, another 2nm behind Leopard and closing the distance. Wild Oats XI was making 16.7 kn to Leopard's 16.2kn.
While these are very respectable speeds, the weather forecasting models are in agreement there will be more calms and light patches ahead. Respected yachting forecaster Roger Badham, who provides pre-race weather predictions to many top boats in the fleet, says: "The big guys will have some running in Bass Strait this afternoon, but there are still a lot of potholes between that and the finish," Badham said. "Anyone of the three could finish first."
One certainty is that Wild Oats XI's race record, set at 1 day, 18 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds in 2006, is in no danger. Given the calculations of speeds so far, Alfa would be expected to finish at 20:30 Monday night, with Leopard and Wild Oats XI finishing after midnight.
But a westerly change turning moderate southwesterly is predicted for Tasmanian waters tomorrow - and that could still create those potholes of calm and light patches off the east coast under the wind shadow of Tasmanian's high interior.
From Alfa Romeo, Murray Spence reported, as she picked up the light nor'easter, "We are now enjoying the sunshine; not the usual way to cross Bass Strait." He said the crew was driving the boat hard today, although they were keen to get some rest after reefing most of the night had meant "intense work from all on board".
Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards said Oats had been within three or four miles of Alfa Romeo in the morning calm before Alfa accelerated out of sight in the first of the new breeze. "There's always the element of luck in these races and right now it has gone his [Alfa's] way and not our way. But there's a long way to go, so anything can happen yet," said Richards. He said the attitude on the boat remained very positive. "We have a fantastic bunch of guys on board here; we won't give up 'til the death."
Adrian Stead, tactician on the British Jude/Vrolijk 72 Ran, the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race winner, was upbeat even though the light conditions are not expected to suit this powerful boat. "We are just past Green Cape and the breeze is filling back in. We have done okay with the current but had a light morning. It's nice to still see the maxis, but we are conscious of boats behind using the sea breeze this afternoon."
The concertina effect completely scrambled the IRC corrected time calculations. The new IRC overall leader is reckoned to be Noel Cornish's Sydney 47 Jude, crewed by a group of friends from the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia.
The Sydney 38, Mondo, retired today with rigging problems and was heading to Eden, bringing the number of retired yachts to five, with 95 yachts still racing. The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race fleet has crews representing the USA, Great Britain, New Zealand, Spain, the Netherlands, and New Caledonia as well as every Australian state.
Find out more at www.rolexsydneyhobart.com.