Take last year's race to Hobart, for example, where a heinous sea combined with gale-force winds saw the two biggest maxis - Skandia and Konica Minolta - suffer race-ending breakdowns. At 92 feet long, the slightly smaller Nicorette profited from both the forced retirement of Konica and the capsize of Skandia, leaving the way clear for Ludde INGVALL to reach Hobart first. This was largely due to 'Ludde's Tour of Tasmania', the skipper's colourful description of his survival strategy of dodging in and out of almost every cove along the eastern coast of Tasmania, to avoid the worst of the steep-backed waves further out to sea.
INGVALL also imposed a speed limit of 8 knots on his go-fast young skiff sailors aboard Nicorette, as it was the only way the brand new boat was going to stay in one piece. Then lo and behold, just a few days after being delivered up to Queensland for some corporate sailing, Nicorette's mast fell down, believed to have been a delayed effect from the severe hammering it had taken during the passage to Hobart.
Despite the high damage toll suffered by these three maxis, the same trio are back for another assault on the Rolex Sydney Hobart. Nicorette is on charter to Sean LANGMAN and rebranded as AAPT. LANGMAN says he has added extra bulkheads to the bow section of the 92-footer, the front sections being the part of the boat that bears the brunt of any wave impact. Following the near total destruction of Skandia, Grant WHARINGTON will be back with the same boat after a major refurbishment of the damaged maxi. The Melbourne property developer will also have learned valuable lessons about canting keel technology from his participation in the Volvo Ocean Race, and he is taking time out of this round-the-world adventure to compete in the Rolex Sydney Hobart, a race that he won with Skandia in 2003.
Stewart THWAITES is another maxi owner who can't stay away. Konica Minolta pulled out of the race last year when the Kiwi 98-footer slammed down off a big wave and nearly folded in half with the impact on landing. Her broken deck has now been fixed and reinforced, and the conventional, fixed-keeled maxi is considered a dark horse for line honours. Round the cans in the Rolex Trophy just a few days before the big race to Hobart, it is clear that the fixed-keel Konica is no match for the modern leviathans in normal sailing conditions. But with the likes of America's Cup helmsman Gavin BRADY and former Whitbread Race winner Ross FIELD as navigator, THWAITES'S boat is extremely well handled. BRADY is hoping for another nasty race, when crew work could become the determining factor in success. 'The windier it is, the better it is for us,' he says. 'The boat likes a bit of breeze, the way we've set it up for this race.'
The view around the marina in Rushcutters Bay, where the fleet of 86 yachts are gathering for the Boxing Day start, is that big breeze could be the undoing of the line honours favourites, the near-sisterships Alfa Romeo and Wild Oats XI. The two new REICHEL/PUGH Maxis are very new and in the case of Wild Oats in particular, are untested in ocean-going conditions. Recent history in ocean racing speaks against the reliability of canting-keeled yachts, with a spate of accidents in the Volvo Ocean Race, the Vendée Globe and of course in last year's Rolex Sydney Hobart with Skandia's capsize.
So THWAITES is happy to be racing aboard Konica Minolta, even if it is a fair bit slower than his newer rivals. 'Wild Oats had a couple of breakdowns this week,' he said after the end of the recent Rolex Trophy. 'Alfa Romeo had a breakdown, so reliability could be a big issue for them on the way to Hobart. Last year Skandia had the problem [with her keel], and then we're seeing the problems the Volvo boats are having at the moment. In the right conditions we won't be able to touch them, but I think given a hard slog I think we've got more than a decent chance. Ross FIELD is looking at the weather. It looks like we'll have a normal Sydney Hobart, which should be good for us.'
By 'normal', THWAITES means 'nasty'. As the only one of the big five maxis not to have a canting keel, Konica Minolta should be able to continue sailing closer to her full potential in strong winds than the higher-tech boats, which are almost too fast for their own good in windy conditions. Sean LANGMAN only sailed a canting-keel boat for the first time less than two weeks ago, when he set foot aboard AAPT. His lack of experience with this technology is causing him some anxiety, and he may yet revert to his more tried and tested water-ballasted 66-footer, another AAPT-branded yacht. A Rolex Sydney Hobart is hardly the place to learn about canting keel technology for the first time. 'Upwind I don't know enough about how hard to push it, and how hard not to push it. At the end of the day, with a canting keel, it's all hanging off one little bit of steel. It's in the back of your mind all the time, especially as the skipper with responsibility for the entire crew. Crew security is paramount, that's something we're all learning year to year.'
Whichever boat he chooses, LANGMAN knows he has his work cut out trying to beat the REICHEL/PUGH sisterships, and the race could well come down to who treads the fine line between speed and survival best. 'The two 98 footers are the faster boats,' LANGMAN admits. 'We've just got to hope they push each other too hard and that they break down, and that we're there hanging around in the background.' Another boat that could be hanging around the in the background is Alex THOMSON'S Open 60, Hugo Boss. While considerably smaller than the 90-foot-plus Maxis, Hugo Boss is a sturdy round-the-world racing machine and THOMSON is famed for his fearlessness, whatever the weather.
If it is a fair weather race to Hobart this year, however, no one would bet against Alfa Romeo and Wild Oats having a fair crack at not just line honours, but also the handicap victory and perhaps even the race record, set in 1999 by a Volvo Ocean 60 called Nokia. On paper, the 98-footers are light-years faster than a VO60, although 1999 was an unusually benign and predominantly downwind race. As for doing 'the double' of line honours and handicap victory, that has only occurred on five occasions in 60 races, the last time in 1987, when Sovereign earned the double honour.
Wild Oats' skipper Mark RICHARDS said winning on handicap would be a dream come true. 'It's a bigger thrill for a boat to win on handicap than to get line honours. Line honours this year is between four or five boats, really. Handicap is between the whole fleet. That is the goal that everyone aspires to. All the guys up in the CYCA clubhouse with their photos on the wall, they are the handicap winners. From the sailors' point of view, that is the real trophy, to win the Tattersalls Cup.'
Sean LANGMAN disagrees. 'I just want to get there first. I'm not interested in the handicap at all, not at all. The vagaries of the handicap rule don't interest me. Line honours is something the media understands, something the public understands.' LANGMAN has won many line honours victories, but the big one, the Rolex Sydney Hobart has eluded him thus far. 'The first time I skippered my own boat, we led down the coast. And for the next few years we got every line honours contest up and down the coast, but not Hobart, and that's why I want it. You don't have to be 100 foot to win the race. Needless to say it helps having a bigger boat, but it doesn't mean you're going to get there first.'
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