Investec Loyal broke the six-race stranglehold of Wild Oats XI in the 2011 Rolex Sydney Hobart classic. But a protest threatened to sour finish line celebrations. By Crosbie Lorimer
Helicopter pilots have played a very important part in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race over many years and none more so than the former ABC helicopter pilot Gary Ticehurst, who died only four months before the 2011 race. So, in appreciation and commemoration of the fleet’s ‘guardian angel’, the crew of Wild Oats XI spread his ashes at sea as they headed south.
But for another helicopter pilot, the first day of this year’s race brought some unwelcome attention, drawing him unwillingly and unwittingly into the vortex of a Race Committee protest and full back page national newspaper coverage less than 48 hours later as the leaders arrived in Hobart.
Ian White, who was flying the ABC chopper for the first time in this year’s race, confesses he knows little about yachting, so when asked by Investec Loyal’s tactician, Michael Coxon whether Wild Oats XI was flying a trysail (a small triangular sail that replaces the mainsail in stormy weather) as the yachts raced down the NSW coast in heavy airs on the first morning, his embarrassment at not knowing what a trysail looked like led Coxon to ask him the colour of the sails.
“They’re both grey,” said Ian White, unaware of the events that this simple question and answer would set in train. In reality, this distracting incident was something of a sideshow to what was to prove an engrossing battle for line honours and handicap positions in a long and highly technical race that relied heavily on light weather tactics.
And it was the unpredictable nature of a persistent high pressure system sitting stubbornly over Tasmania that had navigators and skippers of all sizes of boats hoping that some good tactical work, clever forecasting and a healthy dose of luck might hand them a winning advantage.
In the lead-up to this year’s race, with news that David George’s all-powerful 100-foot supermaxi Rambler would not be making it to the start line after her dramatic capsize during the Fastnet Race, the short odds betting for the first to finish turned again to a longstanding rivalry between Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats XI (which has taken line honours five times in the last six races to Hobart) and Anthony Bell’s Investec Loyal, formerly the New Zealand yacht Maximus.
Despite recent upgrades, Loyal has been generally accepted as lacking the speed on most points of sail that Wild Oats XI continues to enjoy, as she, too, has been progressively ‘tweaked’. So if the big white boat with the huge zebra on the sail was to see off the long silver streak, then she was going to need the right weather, some very skillful sailing and a fair share of good luck.
Given that luck and weather are race variables that you take as you find them in this famous race, Anthony Bell worked hard over the last year on those factors he could control in his goal to seize the JH Illingworth Trophy, optimising Loyal for performance and drawing together the best crew he could muster, including the renowned American round-the-world race navigator, Stan Honey.
For the weather, Bell would have to rely on a forecast that would allow Loyal to stay in touch with Wild Oats until both boats were across Bass Strait, as well as hoping for some light weather to bring tactics into play. As it transpired, it was that very forecast that started playing nicely into Bell’s hands as Boxing Day approached and one that animated his tactician, Michael Coxon when he spoke on race morning at Rushcutter’s Bay.
“The second half of this race looks like a light air lottery and if we can stay near the lead when that system arrives, we could do very well,” he said.
But first they had to get through the classic heavy weather stretch that would greet them soon after the start.
Pre-race nerves on Boxing Day morning were greatly amplified for some Victorian skippers whose crew and gear had been stuck in Melbourne overnight when a major storm on Christmas night closed the airport. With eleventh-hour crew arrivals in Sydney, and replacement sailing gear supplied by Musto, the full fleet of 88 yachts, including seven from overseas, headed for the start line on a grey morning, with a nor’easter building erratically across Sydney Harbour.
START LINE DRAMAS
Minutes before the starting gun fired, Wild Oats XI was in trouble with a main winch failing, leading to some uncharacteristic live-to-air expletives from the usually phlegmatic skipper Mark Richards, as the on-board cameras followed the high pressure efforts to effect a quick repair. With the winch back in action, Wild Oats XI recovered enough ground from a poor start to lead Investec Loyal, Wild Thing and the remaining fleet out through Sydney Heads.
Leaving the pitching and rolling armada of spectator boats behind, the fleet enjoyed a brief spinnaker run downwind, while the forecast southerly change moved quickly up the NSW coast. Its arrival provided more bark than bite from some impressive leaden-looking rolls of cloud; nonetheless, by early evening, the entire fleet was plugging into winds of 30 knots and a building sea.
At the front of the fleet, Grant Wharington’s Wild Thing and Investec Loyal were pushing hard behind Wild Oats XI, before the pressure took an early toll and Wild Thing was forced to retire overnight with sail damage.
On board Investec Loyal the game plan to stay in touch with Wild Oats XI in this heavier weather was running to program. By the first morning at sea, the two yachts entered Bass Strait neck and neck. Wild Oats XI tactician Ian ‘Fresh’ Burns conceded in a radio call that they had not been able to back off as much as they would have liked in the bigger seas, given that Loyal was breathing down their necks.
Despite some dire pre-race warnings that the swell generated by ex-Cyclone Fina off Queensland would create a nasty sea when it met the wind-blown southerlies, the seas proved uncomfortable, but not as damaging as anticipated on the first night.
Consequently, the litany of retirements that often characterises the early hours of the first morning at sea after a night of southerlies did not eventuate, even though the heavy airs persisted for nearly 36 hours. It was, however, enough to see five yachts heading home that day with varying forms of boat damage or minor crew injuries. There were to be only 12 retirements in total for the race.
In the overall handicap stakes, the Farr 43 Wild Rose (a renamed early generation Wild Oats) skippered by Roger Hickman was looking strong on day two, but the serious pundits knew there was a long way to go yet and many thought that the light weather might ultimately favour the 50-footers, if they could find a quicker route through the light air that was to plague both the leaders and the small boats.
Not surprisingly, several yachts with recent current form were holding up well in the overall handicap and division standings, including Darryl Hodgkinson’s Beneteau First 45 Victoire, former handicap winner Andrew Saies aboard Two True, Chris Broughton’s much-travelled Jazz and the new and much talked of Kerr 40 AFR Midnight Rambler owned by Ed Psaltis, Bob Thomas and Michael Bencsik.
EYES ON LOKI
But it was the highly successful Loki, the Reichel Pugh 63 owned by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s Ocean Racer of the Year, Stephen Ainsworth, in his 14th tilt at this race, that had the experts watching closely.
Loki, which is named after the Norse god of mischief and trickery (aptly describing this year’s weather pattern for the race) remained in the top three on overall handicap for most of the race, only dipping lower down the standings briefly on day two as she negotiated the light airs on her way to the finish.
An equally compelling contest was also in play within the Sydney 38 Division, which had drawn more than the usual amount of attention for this year’s race, with young circumnavigator Jessica Watson, ironically being only now old enough, at 18, to tackle the race to Hobart aboard Ella Bache Another Challenge.
Being skipper of the race’s youngest-ever crew (including fellow young circumnavigator Mike Perham), all of whom were under 21 years old, Watson was on a steep learning curve to acquire the skills for racing and readily admitted as much.
“I’m quite the slowest crew on board,” she said, with a broad grin at the pre-race conference.
Undeterred, the Ella Bache team spent several months training under the watchful eye of coach and fellow skipper Chris Lewin, even making a dry run to Hobart and back prior to Christmas.
As the Sydney 38s headed into Bass Strait, the race up ahead for line honours was drawing to an exciting close as Wild Oats XI and Investec Loyal swapped leads as they closed Tasman Light. Wild Oats had a slender lead as she headed west into Storm Bay on the afternoon of day two, leaving the light airs and seeking to take advantage of the rising southwesterly.
Those watching Yacht Tracker noticed that Loyal had elected to keep heading south as Wild Oats pointed the bow toward Hobart.
It was the second masterful move from Loyal (she had previously taken the lead in Bass Strait by choosing the shortest route through a patch of light airs and sailed around Wild Oats, before the latter took back the lead in the next phase of stronger winds) as she moved into a stronger southwesterly and passed Wild Oats in Storm Bay.
As the media and spectator boats headed down the Derwent River in the early evening, an impressive sight greeted them as two towering masts barely 200 metres apart could be seen on the horizon. At this point, the duel had moved to America’s Cup-style, boat-on-boat tactics, with Loyal going gybe-for-gybe with Wild Oats looking to defend her slim lead in a light breeze as they moved slowly up the river at sunset, accompanied by one of the largest fleets of spectator boats of recent years.
Do what they might, though, the Wild Oats team could not take back the lead and, indeed, as the gybing duel continued, she seemed to lose more ground, despite Loyal sailing with a broken winch system that had given out at the Iron Pot.
Finally, to the cheers of a huge crowd lining the nearby shore, Investec Loyal crossed the finish line, with Wild Oats XI following three minutes and eight seconds later, the closest line honours finish in almost 30 years.
While the crowds had admired Wild Oats XI’s impressive string of wins in this race, many thought this close win for Loyal not only a remarkable achievement for what was deemed a slower boat, but perhaps also a win for the race itself, putting some fresh faces on the podium.
But as Loyal motored into the Kings Pier Marina, celebrations appeared muted on board; something was clearly afoot.
Sure enough, with Loyal moving to the winner’s berth in the background, CYCA Commodore Garry Linacre reluctantly announced to the waiting crowd and large media contingent that, for the second year in a row, the winner would be provisional, subject to a protest against Loyal by the Race Committee, to be heard the following morning.
Investec Loyal was accused of receiving outside assistance during the race, the protest relating to the conversation between Michael Coxon and the ABC helicopter concerning Wild Oats’ sail plan on that first morning at sea.
With the conversation itself held on an open radio channel and being freely accessible on the ABC’s website, there was no disputing the questions or answers, but most experts believed that the nature of the conversation had nothing to do with outside assistance and that Coxon’s response that it was purely a commercial interest in Wild Oats’ sails (made by Coxon’s team at North Sails) was the only credible explanation.
By the following morning, a huge throng had gathered at the Royal Tasmanian Yacht Club to await the verdict of the International Jury, which, after some deliberation, threw out the protest, deeming Coxon’s questions to have been of a commercial nature. The Loyal team was finally free to enjoy the winner’s celebrations.
Many in the racing fraternity were left baffled as to how the Race Committee could have lodged another failed protest right at the moment when everyone was looking to celebrate another great win. Doubtless, the extraordinarily faithful Hobart crowds and the media that turn up every year for the spontaneity of the dockside winner’s greeting, whatever the hour, will probably be hoping for an unrestrained celebration next year.
As the hours rolled on and the remainder of the fleet battled with the flukey conditions that peppered much of the Tasmanian east coast and across Storm Bay, Loki found enough breeze in the Derwent to cross the finishing line in the middle of the night, two days and 14 hours after the start.
It was to be a nervous night for Ainsworth and the Loki team waiting to see whether the smaller yachts at sea, such as Wild Rose, could hold their time. But as the high pressure closed down the breezes off much of the Tasmanian east coast again on day three, the Loki team was handed the coveted George Adams Tattersall Cup for overall handicap winner on the dock on the third morning.
“It’s a fantastic feeling,” said Ainsworth. “Having done 14 races, I know how hard it is to win. So many things have to go right for you … the wind gods were with us this year!”
“This win was no accident,” said Loki’s navigator, Michael Bellingham, the CYCA’s Ocean Racing Navigator of the Year 2011. “We did a lot of weather strategy on the dock. I had an overall game plan and we stuck to it … oh, and no sleep helped,” he added.
The calms that followed Loki’s arrival also put paid to an overall win for Chris Broughton’s Jazz, which, nonetheless, won IRC Division 0, with Loki also winning IRC Division 1.
Garry Linacre’s Coby 49 Vamp, borrowed for the race by Peter Wrigley, won IRC Division 2, while Victoire won IRC Division 3 in a very close finish from Paul Clitheroe’s Balance, the first four boats in this division finishing 20 minutes apart on corrected time.
In IRC 4 Wild Rose, which had looked a strong overall handicap prospect for much of the race, had to settle for a division win after her hopes were dashed by a ‘glass-out’ off Tasman Island. She also won ORCi Division 3. The same broad band of weather was to seal the fate of other hopefuls such as AFR Midnight Rambler and Two True, which ultimately took minor placings in their divisions.
Eighty-year-old Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin took out ORCi Division 1, with Darryl Hodgkinson’s Victoire winning ORCi Division 2 to add to her IRC division win.
In PHS, Andrew Wenham’s Volvo 60 Southern Excellence won Division 1, with Antony Sweetapple’s striking yellow Jones 40 Quetzalcoatl winning Division 2.
In the Sydney 38 Division, a very close battle all the way to the finish line resulted in a win for Tony Levett’s TSA Management Eleni, just minutes ahead of Ella Bache Another Challenge, skippered by Jessica Watson. Impressively, Watson beat the Foye syndicate’s The Goat into third, Adrian Dunphy’s DoDo into fourth and her sailing coach, Chris Lewin aboard Deloitte As One, into fifth place. These top five boats all finished little more than one hour apart, confirming that Sydney 38 One Design racing remains close and highly competitive in Australia.
Maluka of Kermandie brought up the rear of the fleet on New Year’s Eve afternoon, ensuring that all of the yachts were home in time for the New Year’s celebrations.
As the race came to a close, those at the traditional media dinner raised glasses to their missing colleague Gary Ticehurst before adding a toast to another pilot and race newcomer Ian White, who clearly plans to stay out of the limelight in future.
“I shall be wiser and quieter next year,” said a chastened, but smiling White.