Wild Oats XI takes the long-sought trifecta in a dream debut in the 2005 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.
By Crosbie Lorimer
“It’s evolution, it’s all just evolution,” said 85-year-old Trygve Halvorsen when asked to compare the high-tech supermaxis about to set out for Hobart with Saga, the timber yacht he raced south in 1946.
It was, indeed, that sense of continuity that was to pervade the 2005 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. Although brand new supermaxi, Wild Oats XI, barely out of her Christmas wrapping, undoubtedly stole the limelight with her stunning trifecta win of Line Honours, Race Record and Overall Handicap, this race also belonged to an older generation of boats and yachtsmen.
At the end of the 2004 race, two sailors of that generation, Alex Whitworth and Peter Crozier headed off around the world in the 33-foot Berrimilla. They competed in the Fastnet Race in the United Kingdom (gaining second in the two-handed division), before returning with only days to spare to prepare for this year’s Sydney Hobart; the last lap in their 12-month odyssey. Despite such an impressive year, the two circumnavigators seemed surprisingly taken aback by the attention they received on their return to Sydney.
It was also a year to remember race veterans who now sail in a higher division. Not long after the 2004 race, legendary yachtsman, Peter Kurts, owner of the race classic Love and War, passed away and it was only a week before the 2005 event that word spread amongst crews in the Rolex Trophy races that the record-holding, 44-time Sydney Hobart yachtsman, John Bennetto had died in a Tasmanian hospital.
So it seemed fitting that two other members of the race’s old guard, Trygve and Magnus Halvorsen, brothers and three-time winners of the event, should be the starters for this race.
On Boxing Day morning there was an unusually buoyant reception for Sean Carson of the Bureau of Meteorology at the final weather briefing, with crews already well aware that this was likely to be an unusually benign race south.
Indeed, the Bureau struggled to find any sign of the historically preordained solid southerly at any point down the track. While a robust southwester was to prove a challenge for some of the fleet later in the race, the forecast was largely accurate, with only five of the 85 starters retiring.
In a light eight knots and flat water, the race got away from two lines, with the majority of the fleet holding the western shore of Sydney Harbour for more consistent breeze.
By the seaward mark, Wild Oats XI had already stamped her mark on a race that she was to dominate for the majority of the 628 nautical miles to Hobart. Leading Alfa Romeo by several boat lengths, Wild Oats turned south on a close fetch and into the mad, churning whitewater of the spectator fleet that amazingly escapes the disaster it so often threatens.
The highlight of what was otherwise an uneventful start undoubtedly belonged to UK solo sailor, Alex Thomson and his Men In Black aboard the beamy Open 60 Hugo Boss. Determined to give their sponsor maximum exposure, the entire crew started the race in black suits, carefully colour-co-ordinated with the sails and hull.
Rumour had it that crew member, Nick Moloney, one of a rare breed of Australian solo sailors, was putting in some practice for his upcoming wedding and was the last of the team to change into sea-going gear as they headed south.
As the 50-footers passed the seaward mark, the Tasmanian crew of Quest cast a wreath into the sea in memory of John Bennetto, while a little further behind, the much-travelled Berrimilla drew as much media attention at the back of the fleet as the maxis did at the front.
The fleet enjoyed a quiet first night fetching down the NSW coast, Alfa Romeo proving her superior performance upwind by overhauling Wild Oats XI. However, the decision to go offshore for breeze overnight while Wild Oats held the rhumbline was one that owner, Neville Crichton would quickly rue, Alfa Romeo paying dearly for this call for the rest of the race.
The strong northeasterlies promised for the second day proved recalcitrant and for a while it seemed that the race record bookkeepers might not be bothered after all. However, late that evening the pace of the race began to heat up and the leading boats had a fast ride across Bass Strait, with the rest of the fleet chasing down the NSW south coast; the phrase ‘champagne sailing’ featured liberally in boat reports on the sailing conditions.
By late on the second night at sea, Wild Oats XI had a 15-mile lead on Alfa Romeo and the two yachts were surfing down the Tasmanian coast under spinnakers in the pitch black at speeds of up to 32 knots, matching each other gybe for gybe. Alfa Romeo was throwing everything at her battle to regain the lead, including some nylon kites that she had blown out in her bid to haul back Wild Oats XI, but to no avail.
Wild Oats XI rounded Tasman Island before dawn in a fading breeze and clearing skies, with her lead intact and occupying almost exactly the same patch of water as had 60-footer Nokia in 1999, when she set the race record. Even the smashed gooseneck fitting at the mast of Wild Oats, broken during an earlier spinnaker drop, seemed a minor distraction in her race record bid.
If the breeze held in the Derwent River, she would have the record in the bag – or so it seemed. In dramatic early morning light, she approached the Iron Pot at the entrance to the river in a rapidly building northerly when, as skipper Mark Richards was later to recall, “everything went wrong”.
Her running backstay became caught in the top of the mainsail during a tack and in rapid succession the top batten pocket tore out and the leech began to rip. With no choice but to save the mainsail, she was brought to a standstill, the mainsail lowered and a larger headsail hoisted.
As the breeze continued to build, Wild Oats XI romped up the Derwent looking almost overpowered at times, but clearly still in good time. It was a strange sight to see the race record broken under headsail only; something akin to watching Michael Schumacher limping across the finishing line to take out the championship with the fuel already spent. But make it she did, finishing the race in one day, 18 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds, breaking Nokia’s record by just one hour and 7 minutes.
NEVER AGAIN – MAYBE
Amidst the clamour of spectator excitement at Wild Oats XI’s finish and the media’s rush to file their race record stories, Alfa Romeo arrived at Constitution Dock a little over an hour later, almost unheralded. Neville Crichton’s disappointment with the result was all too evident at his post-race media conference. When asked whether he would return for next year’s race, Crichton’s response summed up his frustration in what could best be described as decisive ambivalence: “Right now, not in a million years, but who knows”.
First Skandia, then Konica Minolta followed Alfa Romeo home, with Skandia skipper, Grant Wharington (on a flying visit part-way through the Volvo Round the World Race) looking as relaxed as his crew, who were happy with their efforts and enjoying a very different conclusion to the race from 2004’s dramatic turn of events, when they were forced to jump into liferafts from their stricken yacht. Sean Langman’s young team aboard Club Marine-backed AAPT – incidentally, last year’s line honours winner as Nicorette – was fifth across the line, despite a very bent and broken boom.
Back at sea, the race was beginning to live up to its reputation, with a heavy southwester starting to challenge the second half of the fleet as they crossed the Strait and gained the lee of Tasmania. In this part of the world winds with a ‘w’ in their labels can be taxing, backing and veering from SW to NW with little rhyme or reason and firing bullets of wind at irregular intervals that make sail changes equally unpredictable.
Of the many race stalwarts battling it out through The Paddock, as Bass Strait is sometimes known, were the rugged and evergreen IOR boats that head south year after year. Amongst these quiet achievers was a group of IOR Farr 40s, several of whom regularly race each other on Lake Macquarie and offshore at Newcastle.
Inner Circle, Aurora and Lucifarr enjoyed a fine tussle for the whole race, joined by Farr South from Dover in southern Tasmania; members of one of the few clubs in Australia that can genuinely claim to host racing in the Roaring Forties.
While downwind conditions were not ideal for these boats, this fleet-within-the-fleet enjoyed a race of its own, three of the boats virtually match racing up the Derwent River to the finish. Eventually, Inner Circle took the honours, despite “starting the race twice”, as skipper Michael Graham described their line break in Sydney Harbour.
Inevitably, there was a wealth of entertaining stories post-race and the 12-month-long saga of Irishman John Clarke, one of Inner Circle’s crew members, makes for a not untypical Sydney Hobart yarn. Arriving in Sydney from Dublin on Boxing Day, 2004, just two hours before the start of that year’s race, John headed straight for the CYCA and managed, with more than a touch of Irish blarney, to gain a last-gasp berth on Inner Circle after one of her crew had bowed out an hour before race start.
Inner Circle was eventually forced into Eden that year, but undeterred, John returned in 2005 to repeat and complete the journey on the same boat. On finally arriving in Hobart twelve months after the saga began, he revealed that he had a tee shirt made up in Ireland before he left for the race, which simply read “Dublin-Sydney, Sydney-Eden, Eden-Dublin, Dublin-Hobart”.
With half of the fleet finished, the mood in the Hobart media centre was getting restless. With no official word from the Race Committee and copy deadlines fast approaching for journalists keen to file the story that Wild Oats XI really had taken out the trifecta, even those with a passing knowledge of yachting were calculating the increasingly fictional speeds that the graceful Koomooloo – the oldest yacht in the fleet – would need to achieve to snatch the overall handicap win.
Gradually, the division winners were confirmed. Ireland’s Gerard O’Rourke, with a multi-national crew aboard his Cookson 50 Chieftain saw off Queensland-based sistership Living Doll to take out IRC Division B.
Wot’s Next was an apt name for the Sydney 47 sailed to victory in Division D by first-time Sydney Hobart skipper Graeme Woods. His remarks as he accepted his prize that the future of the race lay with the middle of the fleet seemed almost rhetorical, given the strength and depth of the division in which he raced.
Roger Hickman and the crew of Wild Rose, the corrected time winner in 1993 under the same name as this year’s victor, had a long wait at Constitution Dock before they finally discovered that Koomooloo, another winner of this race in 1968, had improved her winning time by more than 11 hours to prevail in Division E.
The 50-foot Pekljus, originally built for a round-the-world race that never eventuated, took the honours in the PHS division.
Finally, the Race Committee declared Wild Oats XI the overall handicap winner, allowing the relieved media to file their stories. But they had another academic conundrum to deal with; was this the first trifecta in the race’s history or could Rani, the winner of the first race in 1945, be deemed to have held the race record as well as line and handicap honours?
While the crew of Wild Oats XI celebrated its win, the indomitable Lou Abrahams, who yet again had won IRC Division C as well as the Sydney 38 division, confirmed that next year’s race was likely to be his last as he modestly hoped to equal, but not surpass John Bennetto’s 44 races south.
As if to complete the story, Bob Oatley, owner of Wild Oats XI and the boat’s skipper, Mark Richards produced Peter Kurts’ old sailing hat at their post-race press conference. The legendary ‘Kurtsy’ had mentored Richards and many other yachtsmen over the years, his hat being kept aboard to perpetuate his spirit and winning ways.
It seemed the old and the new were quite at ease with each other in this record-breaking year.