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Sydney Hobart Race – the 628nm Windward/Leeward
Start of the 70th Rolex Sydney Hobart © Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi

Sydney Hobart Race

As we have seen, on a chart the Sydney Hobart Race is pretty straightforward. Sails up, turn right, a while later turn right again and then ultimately make your way up the River Derwent to Hobart town. Inside that encapsulation is a lot of change and intrigue, much of which is the reason so many come back time and time again. Speaking of which, and as a very brief aside, Tony Cable makes it 50 Hobarts for him personally this year and the event is only 71 years old. In doing so he creates a hitherto unseen category of sailor – 50+. As the Hoodoo Gurus sang, ‘Like wow!’

There can be no doubt that the race has a rich history and equally so, a tremendous future. The Rear Commodore of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, Past Commodore of the host club and Organising Authority, and now President of Yachting Australia, Matt Allen, is very much qualified to talk about event itself, which we’ll do in this instalment. For the next one we’ll talk about his own campaign this year, as he searches for his hands to be around the up-to-this-point, elusive Tattersall’s Cup.

Allen is no stranger to this particular time of year in either an official role or as a renowned sailor. He commented, “Virtually every Sydney Hobart Race has gotten off on Boxing Day, except for one of the very early ones. Gentlemen couldn’t be seen to be doing anything else on a Sunday back then, but staying at home and being proper, so December 27th it was. Moving on to today and with only a couple of weeks to go we are almost ready, but there are always a few things to do, however.”

Everybody always pays a lot of attention to the front of the fleet. I don’t want to stop too much there, other than every time I say that I am reminded of the live coverage from on board Wild Oats XI. As Comanche hustled – mucho gusto – away from the line, Mark Richards was suitably impressed, saying, “My god. Look at that thing go!

So this year WOXI has just returned to the water with two metres removed from her tail and a brand new 12m bow section grafted on to replace the 10m they cut off from in front of the stick. No doubt it will have more volume to assist with not going down the mine in hard charging off the breeze, so with that change and the new for’ard rags that said change to the fore triangle will have demanded, we certainly do look forward to seeing how the wonderfully sailed super maxi will perform.

Allen said of it, “You don’t get to see too much of the race, as you have obviously got your own focus inside your own boat and your own division. Winning your own division is always paramount. There are 109 boats from 27 countries and the Clippers are coming too, with a few of them here right now.”

“This is a totally unique race in the world. A lot of people tell me that the Rolex Fastnet Race is very similar to the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Race. They are not. I have done a couple of Fastnet races, so I know what that race is about. They are totally different. The start is different. The finish is different. The sailing is different. The interaction of the public is totally different and that is probably the thing that people don’t understand. They think these other races are somewhat similar. They are not.

For the sailors they might be quite similar or have some similarities, but for the general public it is chalk and cheese. The general public in Australia and the world are focussed on the Sydney to Hobart Race for a number of reasons. It is an iconic Australian sporting event. Yet it is by capping it at 100 feet and sticking to monohulls that has created that extra dimension to the race. Its success is in keeping Line Honours the way it is.”

Sydney Hobart Race – the 628nm Windward/Leeward

Rambler 88’s record speaks for itself© Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi

“The fact that we have the best maxi boats in the world line up for this race is the proof. They don’t do that at any other race. They don’t all line up for the Fastnet Race, they don’t all do the Transpac, nor Newport to Bermuda or the Transatlantic, but they do all come here. That is the difference and that is why this race does go on the front page of the daily newspaper.

It is also one of the reasons that the other races don’t go on the front page of the daily newspapers in their respective countries. Intertwined with the origins of the race and then starting it on Boxing Day was a brilliant initiative, because apart from the Boxing Day Test (Cricket), normally nothing else happens. It is a day off, so people get to go out and watch it”, Allen added.

“What other sporting event has about half a million people physically watching the start? The Tour de France is probably the only other case that has that sort of live audience physically watching the race. This is just something that is absolutely unique. It blows every other sailing event away because people will go ‘Well if it is not the Sydney to Hobart, then I don’t care about it’.

It’s a great thing that at least as a sport we get onto the front page and we get into the hearts and minds of virtually every Australian once a year. If we didn’t have the Sydney to Hobart the race we would probably only get it once in every couple of decades – September 1983, London Olympics and Jessica Watson type of things”, said Allen.

“The Olympic sailing at Weymouth did a lot for our sport in a number of different ways. People actually watched the sailing and could understand it, especially the women’s match racing. It was sad to see that event go, for it is a lot easier for the non-sailor to understand than the fleet racing. Still, it did bring sailing into the living room probably for the first time and then it was backed up by the America’s Cup. The next Olympics and America’s Cup will raise it all once again and it’s the technology that has helped us to do it.”

“The Sydney Hobart is such a rare event and even though it has similarities from a sailing prospective with other races, there is no race that is quite like it. Our own coverage has certainly helped with that, too. The starts are fairly unique, as well. You have the most beautiful harbour in the world and the nature of it means you have the funnel affect just to get out and going off the line. As a result, not many other starts are as strict and confined with large craft.

You also have a challenging racetrack. People still say what about that race that happened five or 10 years ago? It was 1998. A long time ago now, but people still remember it very vividly and whilst it was a tragic occurrence, it did actually help the race and the sport, because the safety procedures and equipment were improved as a result. Now it also increased the challenge aspect for the general media and the general public, for it was seen as potentially dangerous and that increased the profile of the race in and of itself.”

So we’ve already seen that to do well, by and large you need a boat capable of doing windward/leewards in varying strengths of breeze. Talking about Rambler 88, Allen said, “I don’t know why George David did not go the extra 12 feet. The management of the 100-footers is pretty hard and given the framework of the race, I still think Wild Oats XI is going to be pretty hard to beat. On a reach Comanche is going to smoke Wild Oats, and everybody else, but generally in most years you don’t get enough reaching to make it really worthwhile. If you get a bit of moderate to light VMG, then it is very hard to beat the hull form of Wild Oats.

Obviously Wild Oats XI is more like WO 11.8 now, after years of tweaks and modifications. Allen commented, “The new one will be the same, well same but different, as they say. I haven’t seen Rambler, but I am really au fait with the old WOXI form and set up. You have got two pretty interesting boats in Wild Oats and Comanche, which are at other ends of the spectrum. There are certainly times one will be better than the other and vice versa, and I am sure Rambler will be snapping at their heels either way.”

“There is nothing you can do about big, wide boats that stick to the water in light airs, so I think it will be a fascinating race. In addition to those two, you have got Rambler, Ragamuffin 100 and Perpetual Loyal that can win. It will be fascinating and the great thing is that the whole world will be watching. It is documented that it’s the most watched yachting event!

So as the trimaran, Phaedo III, runs ragged over courses and records around the Northern Hemisphere, the question about allowing multihulls or 100+footers along for the glory needs to be asked? “I don’t know. It’s a question for the club really. My personal view is that multihulls are here to stay and going to be infinitely growing part of the sport. There is no doubt about that and I think that is essential for the development of the sport, but the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Race has been a monohull race from day one.”

“You could very easily destroy the line honours cache that we have got at the moment by introducing super yachts, Wallies and multihulls. You would just blow it to pieces and you would blow that wonderful monohull class to pieces. They will become dinosaurs in a minute. I think that would be a great pity. It has been interesting watching some of the multihull events recently. There have been a couple of Mooloolaba races attempted. I think one had four entries and one finisher and the other one had no entries. There is a long way to go with multihull sailing.

Sydney Hobart Race – the 628nm Windward/Leeward

Impressive sight of Sydney Harbour at the start of the 70th Rolex Sydney Hobart.© Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi

It is hard enough going into windward in 40/50 knots in a monohull. The multis do go around the world really quickly, but by and large you can avoid weather you don’t want or get into the weather you do need, whereas if you are going down the New South Wales coast you are there. You can’t avoid it.”

“You would have to be worried if you were running this race, because a multihull flipped upside down on the race track is going to create maybe more issues in this country than it will in perhaps some other countries and you’ll have the extra coverage. You may attract one sector of extra entries, but you could be destroying really what is the vast media story and perspective on the sport… And that is which 100-footer is going to get to Hobart first.

The recent Transat Jacques Vabre could well be a case in point. The large trimarans got through quickly, but behind them the smaller multis and monohulls got slammed here, there and everywhere like a pinball game. “If you dilute the essence or you dilute the focus, there will be another set of issues. It’s amazing what went on there and I think this thing is going to be debated for a long time.”

Allen concluded by saying, “I think you have just got to be careful when you have got something that works so incredibly well. When you go to some other yacht races in the world and you ask them who got line honours in the various Divisions, often people don’t know, let alone who won overall. We have that singular aspect as a focal point and it gains traction the world over!”

Accordingly, on Boxing Day, the world’s most watched yacht race will get underway once more. The big hundreds will lead, for sure. Next question is which group will get the nod from on high and have the weather window that suits them? Who knows, but the hottest competition could well be in the 50-something bracket with all the TPs and the like. Keep a weather eye on Sail-World.com for all the latest intel on the great, and very historic, blue water classic…

by John Curnow

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