Despite bettering Nokia's longstanding record by more than an hour, it was by no means plain sailing, as Wild Oats sailed across the line under jib alone, the mainsail having been badly damaged in the final hour's sailing up a windswept Derwent River.
The running backstay got caught on the top batten of the mainsail during a tack, and eventually the batten wrenched away, forcing the crew to lower the sail before it tore apart with the flogging from the wind. Not that it seemed to hold up the lightweight canting-keel boat too badly. Even under jib alone she was making over twelve12 knots boatspeed upwind.
'Huge, huge relief,' was RICHARDS' breathless reaction to winning line honours. 'We sailed a pretty flawless race. The fact that we had problems in the last ten miles is a shame, but that's ocean racing.' Not that the rest of the race was incident-free. 'We had three direct hits with sunfish. It wasn't pretty. There was blood everywhere behind the boat after one collision. We hit a shark too, and Gary Wiseman was nearly thrown off the wheel.'
The strong winds of the previous night also took their toll. At one point, while charging downwind in 34 knots of breeze and travelling almost as fast through the water, Wild Oats' boom vang shattered. 'That was pretty scary,' admitted RICHARDS, with some understatement. But heartstopping moments like that made victory all the sweeter. 'It's an absolute thrill, an honour, and a dream come true,' he said. For his efforts, RICHARDS was presented with a Rolex Yachtmaster timepiece in Rolesium by Matteo MAZZANTI of Rolex SA.
Owner Bob OATLEY, who did not sail with the boat but was there to greet the team when they arrived to the applause of Hobart spectators, has spent a long time trying to win this race. He could not take his eyes off the JJ Illingworth Trophy, the plaque detailing many of the great names of ocean racing. 'A lot of these names on here are my friends,' he said.
Just as last year when the newly-launched Nicorette won a hard battle to Hobart, Wild Oats XI was launched less than a month ago and it was a hard scramble to be ready for the Rolex Sydney Hobart. Alfa Romeo, on the other hand, had a four month head start and Neville CRICHTON's timing for this race appeared to have been perfect. But if Wild Oats was late to the water, she was still a well prepared campaign. This is OATLEY's third canting-keel boat, so he is well used to the technology. 'We had confidence that we would finish the boat on time,' said OATLEY. 'It was delivered exactly on the date it was due. We didn't expect as many adjustments to be made after launch, and we didn't have as much time on the water as we'd have liked, but we're here. We did just five short races [in the lead-up to the Rolex Sydney Hobart], and that gave us a lot of the confidence in the boat.'
The indications from the short inshore races at the Rolex Trophy in Sydney two weeks ago were that Alfa Romeo had the edge upwind, and that Wild Oats might be slightly quicker downwind. As Alfa's tactician, Michael COXON pointed out, 'Unfortunately for us, this was a downwind race. But that's not to say they're lucky. Wild Oats sailed very well.'
The key moment in the race came on the first night out of Sydney when Wild Oats, lying in second place behind Alfa Romeo, held inshore looking for a favourable wind shift. Alfa Romeo continued on a more seaward course and never found the same breeze as Wild Oats. 'We always thought this race would be won on the first night,' said RICHARDS. 'We had a game plan and it worked for us.'
Alfa Romeo reached Hobart just over an hour behind Wild Oats, and CRICHTON could not disguise his anguish at missing line honours. 'They outsmarted us,' he admitted dockside. 'We gave it our best shot. We always like to win, but at the end of the day we got beaten by another boat and we'll just have to rethink it. We've beaten them in six out of seven races so far, they've beaten us one. But this was the important one. They seem a little bit faster than us downwind, but we made a bad calculation on the weather. They went inshore at Green Point and we went offshore, and that cost us the race.'
'Perhaps it was also the lucky charm of Peter KURTS's hat on board Wild Oats that brought them the requisite piece of fortune needed to win the Rolex Sydney Hobart. KURTS, a Hobart legend who raced aboard his yacht Love & War, and died shortly after the finish of last year's race, used to wear a faded and tatty white sun hat whenever he raced, and Mark RICHARDS was wearing the lucky hat as he crossed the finish line in triumph today.'
Behind the two boats now finished, the breeze has increased out at sea and is making life difficult for the rest of the 85 boat fleet. Wild Oats XI could yet become the first boat - since Rani won the inaugural race in 1945 - ever to claim the treble of line honours, the record and the handicap win. But at the moment two Cookson 50s, Chieftain and Living Doll, are locked in a match race at the top of the IRC handicap standings, with the Reichel/Pugh designed Hardys Secret Mens Business sitting in third just ahead of Wild Oats in fourth.
The twin 50 footers are currently heading towards the northeast coast of Tasmania, and current projections give Living Doll a small advantage over Chieftain. Living Doll, owned by Michael HIATT, currently holds a three hour buffer on corrected time over Wild Oats and if he can finish by midnight tonight he will take up the lead in the battle for the Tattersalls Cup, the handicap trophy.
Two yachts have retired, Conergy and Sirromet Life Style Wine.
Line Honours Standings
Recorded at 2000 (AEDT) local time 28 December 2005
1. Wild Oats finished at 0800 hours
2. Alfa Romeo finished at 0916 hours
3. Skandia finished at 1345 hours
4. Konica Minolta finished at 1446 hours
5. AAPT finished at 1742 hours
Provisional IRC Standings
Recorded at 2000 (AEDT), 28 December 2005
1. Wild Oats XI
2. Alfa Romeo
4. Wot's Next
5. Quantum Racing
6. Hardys Secret Mens Business