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pre-race bitching

It’s not often the grumbling begins even before the start of a major offshore race, but the malcontents have a point today. Two groups – one at at each end of the fleet – have voiced what seem like legitimate complaints about the Sydney-Hobart race management. 

As more than 150 yachts are set to charge down the Harbour at 13:00 Sydney time, the smaller entrants believe they are at even more of a disadvantage than usual.

The harbour is relatively narrow, which means that it would be unsafe to cram everyone from 100-footers to 30-footers together on the same starting line. To solve that problem the Cruising Yacht Club this year has set four parallel lines, each about 200 yards apart. 

The fleet is divided into four divisions, with the biggest, fastest yachts at the front and the slowest at the rear. (Separate clearance and rounding marks are set as the fleet approaches open sea at Sydney Heads in an attempt to ensure that everyone sails the same race distance.)

On paper that seems a fair solution, but in reality it clearly favours the big boys. 

Today, the supermaxis and 60-70 footers starting at the front of the queue will enjoy a huge advantage. Why? Because they get clear air and undisturbed water. In the NE breeze that usually blows for a Hobart start they can also actually sail a slightly shorter first leg to windward than the back markers. 

Anyone who’s raced to Hobart in a boat under 40 feet knows how tough it can be to make headway through the chopped-up air behind the vast 140-foot rigs of the supermaxis. Add to that the confused, soupy slop churned up by the spectator fleet and it’s not uncommon for the smaller boats to take 20-30 minutes longer just to clear the Harbour. By then Comanche and Wild Oats XI are specks on the horizon, already roaring South under their massive A-sails.

That’s not only disheartening, it’s unfair. When handicap places are often decided by a few minutes (if not seconds), the disadvantage of starting at the back of the fleet is huge. There has to be a solution – maybe staggered divisional starts an hour apart with the smaller boats setting off first? Whatever, it’s an issue the CYCA needs to address.

Meanwhile, the supermaxi skippers have expressed their own gripe. Since the tragic 1998 Sydney-Hobart it has been compulsory for every boat to radio in on old-fashioned HF as they pass abeam of Green Cape, the last landfall before Bass Strait. The skipper must tell race control that the boat is fit to continue and that the crew are all willing to keep racing. Failure to do this is grounds for DSQ.

The problem is that HF transmission and reception is affected by atmospherics. After three unbroken weeks of major bushfires the smoke haze over the South-East Australian coastline has been so heavy it could make HF communications unreliable. 

Scallywag skipper Dave Witt wrote to the race committee raising this concern, suggesting that as it was now compulsory for every boat to carry a satphone, that system should be allowed as a back-up option for the Green Cape check-in. 

The Cruising Yacht Club has denied the request. Witt gave them both barrels: “I find it absurd that we can be disqualified when we have a better piece of technology sitting right there.”

And for once, the other supermaxi skippers are of one mind. Comanche owner Jim Cooney: “Atmospherics play a part in radio propagation and if that’s likely to cause a problem then there ought to be a contingency.” Mark Richards, skipper of Wild Oats XI agreed: “The rest of the world uses satellite phones. To have such a critical point of the race determined by one form of communication in today’s world needs to be looked at.”

But the CYCA is unmoved. On the morning of the race they’ve issued a media statement reminding everyone that the Sailing Instructions require each yacht to have “a working HF radio” and that “other factors” are more likely to “impact on” race communications than bushfire smoke.

Not for the first time, the club has made itself look like Admiral Nelson holding the telescope to his blind eye, saying “I see no problem”.

–  anarchist David