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tortoises and the hares

Sydney to Hobart report #3

And then the breeze went soft. For once the crisp North Easterly that usually slingshots the larger Sydney-Hobart boats towards Tasmania has died from the front. The four supermaxis still lead in a tight bunch – just four miles between them – but the gap to the chasing group is now only 30-40 miles.

It’s still a downwind race. As the breeze moderated the slinkier 100-footers – Black Jack and Wild Oats XI – were expected to get away but somehow Comanche has been able to preserve its narrow lead. There is still a long way to go (220 miles to the finish) and the crap-shoots of rounding Tasman Island, crossing Storm Bay and creeping up the Derwent River are still to come.

As the fleet compresses the divisional leaderboards have become a fast-changing jumble of boat names and some of the much-touted entrants find themselves well down in the handicap standings.
Prominent among the surprise under-performers has been the French entry Teasing Machine. This 2017 Nivelt/Muratet 54-footer is a radical design (large keel with no bulb) and did well in last year’s Middle Sea Race. But owner Eric de Turckheim would be disappointed with their current position – 25th on line honours and a lowly 36th in the IRC standings. Similarly frustrated would be last year’s overall winner Ichi Ban which is doing relatively well on scratch but has descended to 26th on IRC. When the weather conspires to bunch up the fleet the TCF numbers can be cruel.

For the moment at least, this race looks like turning into one for the little guys. Currently leading the IRC list is the 13-year-old 36-footer Midnight Rambler (pictured above) helmed by 36-Hobart veteran Ed Psaltis. He won the tragic 1998 race in an even smaller boat of the same name. Deep experience at navigating through tricky conditions has its rewards. Another “old salt” now challenging for handicap honours is Mark Twain, the 39-foot 1971 S&S skippered by Michael Spies who has done this race 41 times. Twain is currently 6th on IRC.

While it took supermaxi Black Jack just over 13 minutes to sail down Sydney Harbour to the clearance mark yesterday, Gun Runner, the smallest boat in the fleet, didn’t round until 33 minutes later. At the 20-hour elapsed race time junction the 30-footer – crewed by Australian Army regulars – was already more than 200 nautical miles behind the leading group. It takes patience and dedication to keep competing in the face of those numbers.

Perhaps best known among the tiny tail-enders is Komatsu Azzurro, an early 1980s S&S34 that has been deftly optimized by skipper Shane Kearns to the point where it is always in the reckoning for handicap honours given the right conditions. At time of writing Azzurro is sailing South in 77th  place but has already climbed to 27th overall.

While professionalism now dominates offshore racing, the smaller boats tend to be owned and crewed by genuine amateurs. To acknowledge this fundamental schism in the sport the Sydney-Hobart now has a “Corinthian” division. But just 20 yachts – less than a quarter of the fleet – are entered this year as being wholly sailed by true amateurs “whose work does not require knowledge or skill capable of contributing to the performance of a boat or boats in a race or series” (ISAF Competitor Classifications 22.2).

How times have changed from the days, not so long ago, when any form of advertising or sponsorship was grounds for an immediate DSQ and the presence of professionals among your crew was considered distinctly “unsporting”.

–  Anarchist David