Wild Oats XI was leading the Sydney to Hobart yacht race yesterday after battling rough conditions overnight, but the fleet is now facing a gripping tactical dash to the finish because of a lack of winds.
The supermaxi Wild Oats XI, hot favorite to take its sixth line honors win, was well clear of second-placed fellow 100-footer (30.48m) Investec Loyal in the annual 628 nautical mile (1,163km) classic from Sydney to southern Tasmania.
However, after speeding down the south coast, helped by strong winds churned up by a storm system to the south and tropical cyclones to north, the fleet was facing a lack of wind late yesterday, race organizers said.
Cruising Yacht Club of Australia commodore Garry Linacre said the boats were still in the southerly stream, but it was soon due to die out, meaning the yachts would struggle to maintain their pace.
“[It] looks like it could be a lack of wind and some conditions, which may and may not provide some passing lanes and some catch-up opportunities,” Linacre told reporters in Hobart, Tasmania. “That means it could be a really difficult night of sailing.”
Weather forecasters had expected strong winds and high seas for the first night of the prestigious race and the top 15 yachts reported winds of up to 30 knots late on Monday.
However, the conditions for the race, which in 1998 claimed the lives of six sailors when catastrophic weather hit and sank five yachts, claimed only one retirement overnight.
Celestial, a Rogers IRC 46, retired before midnight after breaking the gooseneck, which connects the mainsail boom to the mast.
Two more pulled out yesterday — Accenture Yeah Baby because of gear failure and line honors contender and supermaxi Wild Thing, first to Hobart in 2003, forced out by sail damage.
That leaves 85 boats in the race, which starts on Boxing Day and sees yachts head down the Australian coast, cross the Bass Strait between the mainland and island Tasmania, and sail up the Derwent River to Hobart’s Constitution Dock.
As much as crews can expect dangerously rough conditions, the Sydney to Hobart is also known for the maddening calm of the final stages of the race, particularly the journey along the Derwent River.
Linacre said navigators would now be hoping to find a kind of “private breeze” that would help their boat reach the finish line quicker while eluding competitors.
He said boats could be almost becalmed in low wind conditions when “all of a sudden for no explanation you pick up a private breeze which carries you for four or five hours when everyone else is sitting still.”
Wild Oats XI, holder of the current one day, 18 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds race record set in 2005, was far enough ahead of the pack that the lighter conditions would make it difficult for a rival to overtake it, he said.
Sensing that it would be difficult to run down Wild Oats XI, second-placed Investec Loyal has moved further west of the leader’s path in hopes of skirting around the light weather.
“Tonight is going to be mentally tough for everyone on the boat as we track through the light weather and cover Loyal,” Wild Oats XI co-navigator Ian Burns said. “They are probably going to try and sail us into a flat spot.”
Behind Investec Loyal is Lahana, leading the handicap race, which takes into account each boat’s dimensions, including its sail area, whether it has a canting or fixed keel and age.