On the stroke of 1300 today the 56-boat Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race fleet started the 628-mile classic offshore race to the island state of Tasmania. A medium South Easterly breeze saw most of the fleet sail down Sydney Harbour under spinnaker.
More than 3000 spectator boats lined either side of the course and the slightly overcast day did not stop more than 200,000 spectators from lining the shores of Sydney harbour to witness the fleet's departure.
The start gun was fired by 84-year old Gordon Elliot, a veteran of the first Sydney to Hobart Yacht race sailed 59 years ago in 1945. Even before the smoke had cleared the two 98-foot long Maxi line honours contenders, Stewart Thwaites' Zana (NZL) and Grant Wharrington's Skandia (AUS), made their intentions clear by starting a trans-Tasman match race that is likely to last all the way to the finish.
The Melbourne-based Skandia came hunting for the Kiwi boat seconds before the start gun deafened the competitors lining up for the off, Wharrington accelerating earlier for the line and sailing out in front from a leeward position shortly after the gun fired. The pair remained locked together with jib-top rigs most of the way down the harbour before Wharrington's pale blue boat started to put some distance on his rival as the pair hardened up onto the wind and started offshore. Conditions to be experienced by the fleet over the coming days should suit both boats at different times and as a result the lead on the water is likely to change frequently.
The weather forecast for the next 36 hours is calling for winds of 15-20 knots from the South East, something that will mean close-hauled sailing for the entire fleet. The wind is forecast to be stronger offshore but there is over a knot of fair current running south along the New South Wales Coast. The race will prove to be a strong tactical event, navigators will be trying to balance the risk of sailing further offshore to find stronger winds against using a shorter distance down the rhumb line towards the Bass Straits, Tasmania and the finish line in Hobart.
Initially the two fastest boats on the water opted to get offshore quickly looking for those forecast stronger winds. But with eyes only for each other, the big picture being to be first home, the dash for the coastal option and a claim on overall handicap honours was left to five boats all between 48 and 52 foot long. Pre-race favourites Yendys, neck and neck with Ichi Ban exploited the shore option short tacking close along the world famous New South Wales beaches as they headed South, actually leading on the water for a period three hours after the start.
As the bulk of the fleet will approach the bottom of Australia two days from now, a ridge of high pressure will pass over the course meaning that winds will drop away and remain variable for some time before the new Westerly wind fills in further South. Boats that find themselves to the West will pick up the new breeze earlier and benefit from fresher downwind sailing conditions all the way to the finish from then on.
The current race record has been held since 1999 by the Volvo 60 Nokia. The first boat in the 2003 Rolex Sydney Hobart needs to cross the finish line in Hobart before 0848 local time on Sunday 28th December to beat the record. The conditions being experienced and the current forecast would indicate that Nokia's record may well be safe for a further 12 months.
The Rolex Sydney Hobart uses a tracking system to monitor the entire fleet, whose individual positions are collected and updated every 10 minutes and then graphically presented on the official website at the address below.
While the two 98-footers Zana and Skandia have been fighting it out offshore this afternoon, the 66-footer Grundig-AAPT sailed her own race inshore and has slipped into the lead as the Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet settles in for the first night off the New South Wales coast.
The recent $250,000 overhaul undertaken by her skipper Sean LANGMAN is already paying dividends for this Sydney boat that has traditionally been labelled a 'downwind flyer'. She simply wasn't expected to keep up with the bigger boats in a headwind.
"It's not that bumpy but we are really pushing the boat, half of us (four of the crew of only eight), are trying to get a bit of sleep so we can keep up the momentum,"
said helmsman Chris Nicholson tonight.
A technical problem on board has prevented Grundig-AAPT's position appearing on the official web site's tracking chart, however they were able to confirm their position in the first radio schedule this evening.
In the IMS division Yendys (Geoff ROSS) is the new leader, edging out the oldest boat in the fleet, Peter Kurts' Love & War with Syd Fischer's champion Ragamuffin in third.
In the IRC division, Grundig-AAPT is leading Bob STEEL'S Quest and Stephen AINSWORTH'S Loki.
As the fleet heads into the first night of the 2003 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, a curious series of match races has developed inside the overall shape of the race.
As expected the super maxis, Zana and Skandia have been all over each other in their rush for line honours, sailing tack for tack down the coast. First Zana followed Skandia out to sea in what turned out to be a fruitless search for extra breeze at the beginning of the race, and then when the big New Zealander tacked to rejoin the fleet Skandia quickly followed suit.
While Zana, skippered by New Zealand property developer Stewart Thwaites and Skandia, skippered by Victorian property developer Grant Wharington, plug away at each other, the two 80 foot maxis, Nicorette and Brindabella also seem to have settled down to their own private duel.
Perhaps realising that the only way they can beat the two bigger boats is by lucking on extra breeze, the two maxis have hung further offshore, still a good stretch to the east of the leaders and the main fleet.
At the front of the leading pack the two 52 foot IMS contenders Ichi Ban and Yendys have been slugging it out since the 1.00pm start gun on Sydney Harbour. The top IMS boat this year will be the awarded the prestigious Tattersalls Cup as the overall race winner, and Yendys and Ichi Ban fancy their chances.
And just astern of Yendys and Ichi Ban lurks Quest, the Overall winner of last year's race.