The low pressure system that brought rain to the Sydney area yesterday moved out to sea, providing picture perfect conditions today - a 15-18 knot southeasterly, sunshine and blue skies - for the 94-boat fleet starting the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race.
Boxing Day spectators lined the Sydney shoreline, and pleasure boats, ferries and all manner of craft jockeyed for a place outside the harbour's exclusion zone, to watch the 94-boat fleet, go off at the 1:00pm (AEDT) starter's cannon. The size and speed of the top end of this year's fleet required a change to three staggered start lines.
The bigger boats, on the forward-most line, set their giant code zero headsails and were quickly off on a starboard reach: while 100-footers Wild Oats XI and Perpetual Loyal were drag-racing in front, just behind were Beau Geste, Ragamuffin, and Wild Thing along with the Volvo 70s, Black Jack and Giacomo. The 80-foot Beau Geste, with the pedal down, rounded the turning mark second, behind Wild Oats XI.
The south-southeasterly breeze, combined with the spectator fleet wash, outside of the race exclusion zone, caused a washing machine-like chop, but that will pale with what is predicted for the fleet further down the 628-nautical mile race track.
The forecast is for lighter winds tonight and tomorrow, before a north-northeasterly fills in, providing ideal downwind conditions. For tacticians on the bigger, faster boats how they manage this transition will be key. For now they will endeavour to get as far south, as fast as they can.
Behind them, the smaller boats will be facing westerly gale-force winds predicted for late Saturday night (60 hours after the start) in Bass Strait and down to Tasman Island. Adding to these punishing conditions will be a westerly swell upwards of ten meters.
But the race more often than not, serves up tough conditions. Prior to the start, many of the skippers and crews, chalked up the forecast as fairly typical. Roger Hickman, skipper of Wild Rose, is a race veteran, having started in 35 races, and completed 33 of them. Hickman said, "It is what it is. Tonight should be quiet, tomorrow quiet and then I believe we're going to get a real pasting in Bass Strait, fresh to frightening, gale-force winds, but that's the way it is.
Hickman acknowledged that the boats and crew were up to the task, adding, "There's a great fleet of boats here, but what's more important is the crew. Every one of these magnificent boats is full of competitive, competent, solid yachtsmen. The experience, the talent and the sea miles that are in this race are astounding."
Brendan Garner, on the Beneteau 45, Senna, will be racing for the first time as skipper, having done the race five races before. Garner said, "It's going to be a complicated race; there's going to be a lot of gear changes. We've done a fair bit of work with our sail systems and set-ups, so we're quite comfortable with that. Overall we're not too fussed with the forecast, we're quite happy with it."
A successful Etchells-class sailor, Garner commented on the change up from one-design to offshore and said, "You're out there for a long time, you have to be mentally and physically prepared. It's a race of endurance."
By late afternoon, many of the bigger boats had headed offshore looking for more favorable breeze; the front-runners were 15-25 nautical miles east of Kiama, making 15-16 knots of speed upwind.