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18 December 2013, 11:55 am
Chinese Dark Horse Stalks Rolex Sydney Hobart
Karl Kwok on board his previous Beau Geste during the Rolex Middle Sea Race
Karl Kwok on board his previous Beau Geste during the Rolex Middle Sea Race

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race
Sydney, Australia

"I am definitely putting my batting average on the line," jokes Hong Kong businessman Karl Kwok when talking about the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia's Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race - true enough, too.
Mr Kwok is here for his second tilt at arguably the world's most famous ocean race. The first time, back in 1997, he bought a new Farr 49 named Beau Geste to see how she stacked up against the big guns of the CYCA and walked away with the Tattersall's Cup, after winning the race overall. One for one, you might say.

Now he is back with a brand new 80 foot maxi, also named Beau Geste, and this time he is intent in stealing the limelight from the local super maxis. "We are going for a different race this time," Kwok declares. "It is not about handicap. This year it is all about line honours."

The Hong Kong businessman may be giving 20 feet away to the heavyweights but at just a few weeks old, Beau Geste, with her canting keel and daggerboards, is a completely new style of maxi. Light, fast, yet very powerful to windward, she is definitely not just here to make up the numbers.

"Beau Geste is based on the V70s, but is more comfortable," says Kiwi boat manager Gavin Brady, who has been Karl Kwok's yachting brains-trust since they teamed up in the mid-1990s.

It is also less uncompromising than the Volvo's, which tend to race on long legs with the wind off one quarter. "People divide yacht racing into two categories," Brady explains, "inshore and ocean, but races like the Rolex Sydney Hobart are what I would call coastal races, as much an in-shore as an off-shore race."

By that, he means that the race is sailed through a lot of different conditions, from Sydney Harbour to Bass Strait to the vagaries of the Derwent River, so the boat needs to be quick and flexible in all these.

"We've looked long and hard at VMG (yachty speak for being competitive in all conditions and all wind angles rather than just blindingly fast when the wind is just right). The mistake we made with our previous 80 footer was that she was very fast off-wind but not so great to windward," Brady, one of New Zealand's finest yachtsmen says.

He also believes that Beau Geste's smaller size compared to the 100 footers is to her advantage in a coastal race, too, "We can make sail changes quicker than a 100 footer. Not as quick as a TP52, but there will be times when we will make a change when a bigger boat will hold off. We'll be snappier, and we are more likely to be sailing the boat at 100 per cent all the time."

Beau Geste is incredibly light, sixteen and a half tons. "A V70, stretched to our size would be 22 tons." Brady says.

"For our size, we are lighter than an Open 60, but with our canting keel we have the same righting moment as the bigger, heavier boats. Wild Oats XI has 68 tons of righting moment; we have 60, so we are just as powerful upwind. The 100 footers are heavy boats with heavy sails. I like to think of them as 747s and we are the Dreamliner."

This is Kwok's second bite of the 80 foot cherry. The first, a Farr 80 cracked in the middle during last year's Auckland to Noumea race. The crew feared that the yacht would break up beneath them.

"It was afterwards that the shock really set in. At the time, we went into the safety at sea routine we had trained for," Kwok recalls. "The nearest ship was 12 hours away, and even then, Gavin was worried about trying to get off the boat and up a vertical ship side in the conditions. So we decided to try to get to the nearest land, Norfolk Island.

"Two guys from Norfolk motored their fishing charter boat 50 miles out to sea to escort us in. During the crisis you're a bit numb. It's when you go home to your wife and she wants to kill you and asks: 'What were you doing?'"


They salvaged the mast and deck gear to use on the new boat.

It has been a hectic schedule getting Beau Geste ready for the Rolex Sydney Hobart. Gavin had only managed eight days of sailing after the launch before the four-day delivery to Sydney. They left New Zealand yesterday.

"We're sailing with the whole race crew for the delivery, and treating it as a race to get us and Beau Geste up to speed," Gavin says.

Kwok has a star-studded crew, many with lots of Hobart experience. He has raced his various Beau Gestes in all the big ocean races with success. Only the Cape Town to Rio remains, and he is determined it won't be long before he chalks that one up too.

"I really like distance racing,' he says. "You feel so small in relation to nature. Even with all the technology you are still pitting yourself against nature.

"And there is the fraternity of guys on the boat. This is a still a pro-am game; you can still be part of it. I can buy an NBA team, but I couldn't play with them."

Gavin believes that every marine architect in the world will be glued to the Rolex Sydney Hobart website this year. "This is an amazing test of yacht designs and philosophies. The long, skinny Wild Oats XI, the wide, powerful Perpetual LOYAL, the Volvo 70s and Beau Geste," he says.

"I have never seen a race like this one."

There is much conjecture from those who will race against the yacht too - and not just those aiming at line honours. Overall chances are also pondering. They won't have to wait much longer.
Jim Gale
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