One of the great sights in world sailing saw all four divisions getting away on staggered start lines as the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race thundered onto the sailing radar earlier this morning. And it was the glamour yachts that stole the headlines. Just three monster maxis this year – BlackJack, Scallywag and Law Connect better known to you and I as Alfa Romeo, Ragamuffin and Rambler – powered off the start-line to provide the early headlines and my goodness, they looked almost ordinary as crew errors, gear damage and some questionable mark roundings preceded the long starboard tack out to favourable current and an horrific sea-state. The pros were ordered on deck whilst the amateurs hunkered down for the hours of sea-sick inducing punching into three metre swells as night-time beckoned.
The boat that caught my eye was that of old friend Grant ‘Waro’ Wharington onboard the 80 footer Stefan Racing (ironically named after a hairdressing chain) that took on the 100 footers and to my eye aced the start before getting out-horsepowered on the way to the first turning mark by the Sydney Heads. Waro’s an experienced eye on this race and I’m tracking him on the incredible event website with much interest – love to see him scoop the Tattersall Cup this time – long way to go though.
Blackjack is currently heading the fleet and IRC on handicap, capitalising on Scallywag’s early forestay base problems that saw the jib depart and left the all-star crew scratching their heads and scrambling for the orange storm jib. Law Connect, who by their own admission had “effed up the start” (oh the joys of listening to Aussies on camera), had what can only be called an absolute nightmare of a first rounding, dialling down to make the mark with the keel canted to windward, the Code Zero refusing to furl and looking every inch like it was their first time out on the boat, were the early runners out to sea. However as soon as they took their foot off the gas in the 30 knot breezes, Blackjack and Scallywag were quickly hunting them down. To finish first, first you have to finish so the next few hours of punch will be interesting to follow.
Blackjack however is looking mighty as I write this – clear of the chasers by almost 10 miles, stretching her legs and proving her pedigree. This boat has been a weapon under both its current and former owners and was a stand-out program when Ado Stead, one of Britain greatest and most under-rated sailors of all time, was commanding that Alfa Romeo project back in the noughties for Neville Crichton. Now under the ownership of Peter Harburg who is no stranger to the Sydney-Hobart having owned a string of Black Jacks in recent times, perhaps her time has come. It’s looking good and the tough conditions perfectly suit an absolute all-star cast onboard. Tough cookies the Black Jack gang.
But what fascinates me is the smaller boats taking part and I absolutely take my hat off to those in the double-handed fleets taking on this Blue Riband event and punching into horrendous seas on the way to Hobart. It’s a heck of a feat and they are all in a pack fighting tooth and nail with Peter Franki and Drew Jones currently just over a mile ahead in their Sydney 36 ‘Salt Shaker’ from Rod Smallman and Leeton Hulley in the super-quick Sunfast 3600 ‘Maverick’…and I tell you what, every single one of the fifteen strong double-handers will have earned their pint in Hobart. Heroes all.
And as news filters in all day, the list of retirements grows. There’s even been a Pan Pan distress call from the TP52 Denali with structural issues – basically a large crack in the hull – and they’re limping home whilst being assisted heroically by the crew of Oskana should the worst happen and the boat sinks. Frightening stuff and they have all hands on deck and liferafts at the ready. Tough, attritional game is the Sydney-Hobart. Not for the feint-hearted.
What a race to follow and what a tremendous presentation laid on for the world to see by the Cruising Club of Australia and Rolex. It’s an eye-opener to just how good things can be. We had onboard cameras, brilliant helicopter shots, first-class commentary and Jimmy Spithill as a special on-the-water guest. It doesn’t get better than that. Hats off to the organisers – you just nailed it.
Wonderful to watch. Even better to follow. If you haven’t done so already, go and have a look at the best event website in world sailing: www.rolexsydneyhobart.com
Enjoy. Makes Boxing Day worthwhile…