After four hours of vintage downwind racing after the start, the Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet are facing a long grind to windward. The Mark Richards skippered 100 footer, Wild Oats XI, shrugged off a cheeky challenge from Grant Wharington's Melbourne 98 footer, Wild Thing, to stamp its mark early on the battle for line honours.
Despite forecasts that this will be one of the toughest Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Races in years, the 87 strong fleet started in remarkably mild conditions on a flat Sydney Harbour at 13:00 (local time) in an 11 knot west-nor-westerly breeze.
Both start lines reported clean starts as nearly 1000 competitors began the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia's Aussie yachting classic under overcast skies in a light wind that produced a colourful spinnaker procession out of the Harbour before the fleet turned at the seaward mark to point south towards Hobart.
On the eastern side of the front start line, reserved for the largest boats, Grant Wharington staged a nail-biting and brilliant start with just seconds to spare at the helm of Wild Thing
. The 100 footers, Bob Oatley's Wild Oats XI
and Sean Langman and Anthony Bell's Investec Loyal squared off on the western side, while Stephen Ainsworth's Loki
timed things perfectly about a third of the way down the tightly congested line.
As Wild Oats XI
and Investec Loyal
sprinted down the western harbour shore, Wild Thing
steamed along the eastern shore in better pressure past Vaucluse and Watsons Bay.
Wild Oats XI
won the sprint to the sea mark, 13 minutes 48 seconds into the race despite trailing her jib briefly in the water as she changed to her light Code Zero sail minutes after the start. Once she turned seaward, Wild Oats
' Code Zero made way for a giant spinnaker as the four-time line honours winner gybed to find the shortest route to the seaward mark.
Two boat lengths behind Wild Oats XI, Wild Thing
and Investec Loyal
converged on the harbour mark, Wild Thing
squeezing her rival out as she slipped inside.
immediately headed towards South Head and Wild Thing
held her course toward the north, looking for the pressure advantage they needed to have any chance of mowing down the leader in these flat conditions.
The gamble didn't paid off for Wharington, who also had an incident with a media boat just inside South Head, and by the time Wild Oats XI
was at the sea mark, the point at which the impressive fleet converged and gave chase and turned the sea into boiling whitewater, the thoroughbred had opened a handy break on her line honours rivals.
At around 17:30 local time Adrienne Cahalan, navigator of Wild Oats XI
, reported that the yacht was off Kiama, beating into a 20 knot south-easterly, which Cahalan anticipated would strengthen to 30-35 knots from the south-west by the time the supermaxi left the New South Wales coast and launched into Bass Strait on Monday morning.
Wild Oats XI
was holding a narrow lead over Wild Thing
and Investec Loyal
, which have been hard on her heels since the start.
"It's been a good race between us and
Wild Thing and
" Cahalan said. "We're all evenly matched."
The arrival of the southerly will most likely bunch the fleet up as the maxis slow down and enter boat preservation mode. Cahalan said that she expected all the big boats to head closer inshore during the night, to take what respite there is from the strengthening winds.
As night fell Grant Wharington, the skipper of the Melbourne 98 footer Wild Thing
reported that his supermaxi was beating into a 25 knot south-easterly breeze under a reefed mainsail and jib. He expects that during the night the wind will rotate to the south west. "We'll get headed as we get around Montague Island and when we hit the land we'll flip back [onto starboard tack],
" he said.
"As we approach Gabo Island the wind will keep going to the right into the south west. So we will do a couple of tacks close to the beach and see how quick the rotation is."
Wild Thing is lying in third place with Sean Langman and Anthony Bell's Investec Loyal within sight, and four miles behind race leader Wild Oats XI which is now 18 nautical miles south of Jervis Bay.
Michael Bellingham, navigator of Stephen Ainsworth's handicap chance Loki said at 8.50pm tonight, "We had the front at 17:30 and it came in at 25-30 knots with heavy rain. The sea is increasing and still rising, [we've seen] thunder and hail. Wind now from the SE at 15-20 knots, it's great sailing and not too cold yet. There's plenty of excitement."
The 628 nautical mile annual passage into the Tasman Sea has claimed its first casualty, Andrew Lawrence's Jazz Player, which retired at 20:00 (local time) with mainsail damage. The crew are OK and the boat is returning to Sydney, due after midnight with 30 miles of motoring ahead of them.
Official race website www.rolexsydneyhobart.com for all the latest and full race tracking.