Soft and swinging winds on the second day will slow the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race fleet; probably removing any chance of the 98 foot canting-keeled maxis have of breaking the race record and producing a handicap winner from the mid-fleet 40-65-footers behind them.
Commercial and government forecasters two days out from the Boxing Day start agree that a 12-18 hour period of lighter winds, 5-15 knots, after a mild southerly change, will follow up to 18 hours of fast running before a freshening nor'easter from the start on Wednesday.
There's a chance that the three maxis racing to be first to finish in Hobart will "park up" through this stage of the race, which will be just as emotionally draining as the hard running at speeds of 25 knots and more on the first night.
That weather scenario would rob Wild Oats XI (Bob OATLEY), the British visitor City Index Leopard (Mike SLADE) and the older Australian maxi Skandia (Grant WHARINGTON) of their chances of breaking the record time of one day, 18 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds that Wild Oats XI set in the 2005 race.
And it would certainly deny them the opportunity of breaking away from the fleet by riding a more favourable weather system to the finish of the 628 nautical mile race to win the race's major trophy, the Tattersall's Cup for the overall handicap winner, as Wild Oats XI did in 2005.
Meteorologist Roger BADHAM, who provides specialized forecasting and weather routing to a number of boats in the fleet including Wild Oats XI and City Index Leopard, sees the fleet of 82 yachts running at high speeds under spinnakers before a north-east to north-west breeze that would increase from 10-15 knots at the start to 25 and possibly 30 overnight. "Wild Oats and Leopard will be ahead of the record,"
But the following day a weak southerly front would hit the 82-boat fleet, sending the breeze around the clock from southwest through south, southeast, northeast and finally back to north, with strengths of only 5-15 knots. "I cannot see them being ahead of the record after that,"
said BADHAM. "They will certainly be close but, in my opinion, not close enough."
He said the leaders would finish some time on the morning of Friday the 28th and would have to negotiate light wind in Storm Bay on the final 40 miles of the 628-mile course.
A very strong northerly would develop later that day to bring home fast the strong group of 40ft-65ft boats. "That's probably where the handicap winner will come from," he said.
At the official race briefing for skippers and navigators, Rob WEBB of the Bureau of Meteorology's Sydney office, had a similar assessment and said the period of lighter winds before the northerly re-asserted itself would be 12-18 hours.
Mark RICHARDS, skipper of Wild Oats XI, said afterwards: "That's why records are called records; they are elusive things and very hard things to beat. Thursday could be a very slow day and for the record you can't afford to have too much time going slowly. We could even park up for four or five hours so that really hurts.
"It's going to be a very tricky race out there and we'll have to work very hard tactically. Anything could happen. It's still a couple of days out but it's looking trickier every day."
The powerful Leopard, which hit speeds of 34 knots in breaking the record for the Rolex Fastnet race earlier this year, could be race leader after those first 18 hours of fast running. But in the expected long period of light air the narrow Reichel/Pugh Wild Oats XI, with less wetted-surface resistance, should break away from the Farr-designed City Index Leopard, which is ten tonnes heavier.
Leopard's owner/skipper Mike SLADE concedes that Wild Oats XI and the Don Jones-designed Skandia, the 2003 line honours winner, would in those conditions probably beat City Index Leopard, but the record would remain intact.
"We are heavier and we do need that extra bit of grunt,"
he said. "We need 12 knots [of wind] to really get the boat out of the water and flying."
Breaking the record needed straight line sailing for much of the course and 20 knots of breeze. "In those conditions, any one of the top four could break the record and the race could be done in 30 plus hours."
He said the converted Volvo 70 Ichi Ban, owned and skippered by Matt ALLEN, who is Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia which conducts the race, could join the 98-footers if they "parked up" in the light winds predicted for Thursday.
"We've all got some pretty exciting sails on board to deal with these situations so if the boats do stop and another boat is doing two knots to your none, it can change the ball game pretty quickly. It could go either way. It all comes down to who's in the wind and who's not."
Tattersall's Cup Prospects
The stop/go factor in the weather pattern enhances the strong chance the US entry Rosebud has of winning the Tattersall's Cup. This Farr-designed first-launched boat of the new STP65 class, owned by Roger Sturgeon, showed good all-round speed in winning the Rolex Rating Series warm-up regatta for the Hobart race.
She will have the downwind speed to hang onto the leading group of maxis overnight from the start and then gain on them in handicap rating terms through the uncertain wind pattern of day two.
The scenario also suits Geoff ROSS' season-old Reichel/Pugh 55 Yendys, second in the Rolex Rating Series only two points behind Rosebud. She was designed, built and has been campaigned for robust offshore racing rather than around-the-buoys regattas. But she surprised her owner and experienced crew by winning the Audi Hamilton Island Race Week in predominantly light air in August.
The TP52s Wot Yot (Graeme WOOD), Ragamuffin (Syd FISCHER), Cougar II (Alan WHITELY) and the two Farr-designed Cookson 50s, Ray ROBERTS' Quantum Racing from Sydney and Michael HIATT's Living Doll from Melbourne, with their ability to plane downwind early should be similarly well placed to hold onto the maxis in the race's early stages, through the spell of lighter winds and gain again as the northerly kicks in again after the maxis finish.
Best suited of all the IRC handicap prospects if the unfolding weather pattern includes some light-air running is Alan BRIERTY's Corby 40 Limit, which has two-times Sydney Hobart race winner Roger HICKMAN aboard as principal helmsman with BRIERTY as tactician.
Against the general recent trend towards asymmetric spinnakers flown from a bowsprit instead of the traditional spinnaker pole, Limit has continued to fly symmetrical spinnakers from a pole.
This proved effective on the lighter-air days of the Rolex Rating Series in which she won Division Two. The spinnaker allowed her to sail deeper angles towards the mark to pick up four places in one race from her asymmetric-powered rivals chasing speed by sailing higher angles.
HICKMAN says: "We can surf at 14 to 15 knots and milk the wave train better by having the ability to run deeper."
Many more boats in the fleet are capable of winning the Tattersall's Cup given their favoured conditions and above all, luck.
Ray ROBERTS says more than 20 boats in the fleet have the form to win the Tattersall's Cup, among them Bruce TAYLOR's new Reichel/Pugh 40 Chutzpah, which has shown promise of great reaching speed. "But it's a new boat and they probably need to spend more time on the water."
"There are so many variables,"
Roger HICKMAN adds, with opportunities even in the last 11 miles to the finish on the Derwent River. "You can pick up an hour or two very easily if you are lucky enough in the Derwent. Everybody has a chance."
Event Website - www.rolexsydneyhobart.com