The drama began an hour before the start when the official start boat began taking on water. Those on board, who should have had a box seat of the start, were hastily deposited on the Zoo wharf, a good two kilometres from the super maxis milling about on the front start line.
But the race must go on, and at 1pm, a hooter rather than the traditional cannon, fired from the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s usual start vessel, sent the fleet on its way.
Instantly it became clear that the brisk northerly breeze, with surprisingly little east in it, was going to provide for an epic tactical start. There was no short line to the first mark. The boats would have to tack across each other at least two or three times to get there.
Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards always favours the western side of the start line, and just one boat lay between the flying super maxi and the pin end buoy. It was a perfect start, and within seconds Richards threw the Oatley family’s boat onto a daring port tack and began crossing the fleet, passing a good three to four boat lengths ahead of Comanche, which quickly tacked too.
Oats, Comanche, Ragamuffin 100 and Rambler tacked over towards the eastern spectator fleet. Only Perpetual Loyal hung onto her initial starboard tack towards the western foreshore, and when she finally tacked back across, it appeared that her persistence had been a terrible mistake as she ducked behind one after another of her rivals.
Wild Oats XI’s starting plan was working a treat. She had an extra boat length on Comanche when they crossed a second time, and when they turned to cross the Harbour again on port tack, Richards seemed in total command of the Harbour.
But then Perpetual Loyal re-appeared from nowhere on starboard. Richards realized he did not quite have the room to cross in front of the charging Loyal and peeled away on a huge ark to avoid her.
Comanche threw in an emergency tack and found herself in the lee of Perpetual Loyal’s massive mainsail. By the time Oats regained her footing, she was in an unusual third place, and nothing was going to stop Perpetual Loyal leading the fleet out of the Harbour.
Comanche trailed Loyal by a boat length or two as Perpetual Loyal, Comanche, Wild Oats XI, Ragamuffin 100 and Rambler settled onto the tight reach through the Heads towards the sea mark and the turn to Hobart.
Then an astonishing thing happened. Comanche unfurled her big spinnaker, pressed the turbo button and took off. She surged to the lead. An arrogant display of raw, unmatchable power.
But more was to come.
Rambler looked to be right where she needed to be, snapping at the heels of her bigger rivals, but about halfway through the Heads, someone hit the American’s afterburners. First Rags, then Oats and then Perpetual Loyal fell by the wayside as George David’s American 88 footer raced through the lumpy, jarring seas as though she was at a flat water regatta.
And still the drama was not over .As Comanche, Rambler, Ragamuffin 100 and Wild Oats XI unfurled their giant Code Zeros for the run south Perpetual Loyal continued out to sea. Twice her Code Zero refused to burst open.
Behind the super maxis things were going more to plan for Black Jack, Chinese Whisper and Ichi Ban, but further back in the fleet Maserati, the world beating Italian V70 had managed to ensnare one of the buoys separating the race and spectator fleets. The big ocean racer finally left Sydney surrounded by small fry. But there is a long way to go.
Further back, Ark 323, the Chinese TP52, was in a collision with another TP52, Ragamuffin 52. “We were dipping down to avoid Rambler, but the boat below us (Ragamuffin 52) did not give us enough room. We have a big crack in our deck,” crew member Faris Bin Aznan, alleged back at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia dock, following her retirement.
Also back at the CYCA were Jeremy Pilkington’s RP78, Lupa of London, and Anthony Lyall’s TP52, Cougar II from Tasmania. They, too, were involved in a collision that left Cougar II’s starboard transom stove in and broken, with damage to the bow of Lupa of London.
Cougar II’s crew were too shattered to speak, the disappointment clearly written on every crew member’s face.
On Lupa, tactician Laurent Pages told of their devastation. “We were sailing on starboard tack from the start and three boats got locked together – we were in the middle with nowhere to go.
“We were left with the decision to run into the boat above us, or the one below us,” Pages said. “This was the worst thing – the worst feeling – a stupid accident.
“The race director was very clear at the briefing this morning. The race committee told us all to take it easy at the start – there was a whole race to go. If everyone listened, this would not have happened. We are shattered – we came a long way. It seems so unfair,” Pages ended.
M3, Peter Hickson’s TP52, is also out of the race, suffering a shattered forestay. They initially thought they would return to the CYCA and try to fix it and re-start. Anthony Lyall kindly offered them the forestay from his Cougar II.
“Despite how they were feeling, Cougar II made us a generous offer, but we subsequently had a crew meeting and looking at tonight’s forecast for a harsh southerly, we decided to retire,” M3’s skipper, Brent Fowler said.
An extraordinary start, but three hours into the race, God appeared to be back in his heaven, normalcy restored.
Comanche is approaching Jervis Bay in the lead, reveling in the brisk northerly. “We have the hammer down, doing 29 knots,” skipper Ken Read reported ”We’ve got to go fast in these conditions that suit us and put distance between us and the rest.
“The southerly is due in four to five hours. If it is sailable, we should still have the advantage, and take more miles out of the others.”
Read isn’t at all surprised that Rambler is in second place, not one of the Australian 100 footers.
“We have raced them a few times and they we have made them better. And they have made us better.”
Due to unforeseen circumstances, the live stream of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race start was unable to be broadcast internationally. We apologise for any inconvenience and frustration that this has caused international followers.
Jim Gale, RSHYR Media