Five-time line honours winner Wild Oats Xl leads Anthony Bell’s super maxi Investec Loyal by that margin but, in many ways, Investec Loyal holds the advantage because the weather charts show the wind dying off the Tasmanian north-east coast.
According to Wild Oats Xl co-navigator Ian ‘Fresh’ Burns, an anticipated 50-60 nautical mile hole in the wind will enable Investec Loyal, sitting on her hip to the east, to watch and wait to see what happens to her nemesis. Wild Oats Xl beat her into second place in last year’s race. Ten miles is not a great distance to make up in modern ocean racing.
“They are likely to play a game of cat and mouse. They have plenty of leverage out there,” Burns said. “If ever there was an opportunity in a yacht race, tonight is the night.”
He explained that this was because the following boat could see what was going on ahead, take evasive action and sail around the leading boat.
“They will throw everything at us,” Burns said, a situation made worse by valuable minutes lost during the day when the race leader hit a sun fish and had to back the boat up to allow the fish to swim off the keel.
A fading south-westerly breeze faces the leading boats during the night, while the rest of the remaining fleet of 83 continues to contend to with headwinds up the NSW coast.
While the two race leaders play games tonight off Flinders Island, the smaller yachts will still be working their way down the New South Wales coast or launching across eastern Bass Strait.
Right now the race for handicap is finely balanced between the biggest boats in the fleet and the more homely 40-footers far behind them. If the super maxis can thread their way down the Tasmanian coast in better air than the forecasts are predicting, they will be very hard to beat on handicap.
Peter Millard and John Honan’s 98 footer Lahana, with her rating advantage over Investec Loyal and Wild Oats XI, is looking particularly threatening.
If the big boats find themselves in the doldrums there will be some cheering from the back of the fleet. It has been a testing race for the front runners, but it has been far tougher for the crews still battling down the mainland coast.
From the time the southerly front first moved through last night to when they break free of the mainland, they will have barged their way through a relentless southerly in a cantankerous seaway.
“The sun came out a short time ago for the first time, which is very nice,” a laconic Dirk Johnson reported from the veteran American 48-footer, Carina, this afternoon.
“It was a little bit bumpy last night. There were bigger waves than we're used to seeing, but all in all the boat went fine and everybody did good and held on.
“A few people haven't been feeling the best but the sun's out and everybody's rallied. Now it looks like we'll have everything from south-westerlies at 15 to 20 knots to easterlies at five [knots]."
Yet it has been that relentless bash to windward that has put the less fancied tortoises up at the top of the race leaderboard all day. Sometimes Lahana has been in pole position but, as often as not, the lead has been shared by the likes of Carina, Darryl Hodgkinson's Beneteau 45 Victoire, Roger Hickman's venerable Farr 43 Wild Rose and Robbo Robertson's Lunchtime Legend, a Beneteau 40.
In a grinding, slow and steady race like this 2011 Rolex Sydney Hobart these boats gain a huge amount of time over the modern hares in the handicap chase. And to stretch the analogy a bit, if the greyhounds at the front have a slow night, the stayers at the back will be happy.
A tired-sounding Brad Kellett reported from Brindabella at 4.40pm: “We passed Green Cape and got into Bass Strait about 3.30pm. We’re in a beautiful sou’ wester of 29 knots – and we’re travelling at 10 knots, but we’d like to be going faster.
“It’s glorious sailing – the wind’s been building since Green Cape and Gabo Island.”
Five boats have retired, including Grant Wharington’s Wild Thing, which suffered sail damage and headed back to Sydney. Another casualty was the Sydney boat Duende, which retired after pulling into Bermagui with crewman Tom Wormald suffering a dislocated shoulder. Also on board is record Hobart racer Tony Cable, competing in his 46th race.
This afternoon the Hong Kong-based TP52 Ffreefire 52 retired with mainsail damage and headed back to Sydney.
Just after dawn this morning, as the first of the morning’s helicopters hovered into sight in eastern Bass Strait, Wild Oats XI scattered more of the ashes of the man regarded as the guardian angel of the Hobart fleets over the years, Gary Ticehurst, the ABC helicopter pilot killed in an air crash this year.
By Jim Gale and Bruce Montgomery/Rolex Sydney Hobart media