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double-handed resistance

Just when the organisers of the Sydney-Hobart race were about to formalise their decision to exclude entrants in the new short-handed division from winning the overall handicap prize, the ‘two-up’ brigade have launched a counter-attack. The sailing committee of the Cruising yacht Club of Australia met last night in an attempt to resolve the issue.

(For those coming in late: The core of this argument is the use of auto-helm. Two-handers cannot sail safely without it, but after pressure from the leading ‘conventionally crewed’ yachts, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia foreshadowed an amendment to the Notice of Race that would see the two-up boats racing to Hobart as a separate division, and ineligible for the Tattersalls Trophy.)

There already look to be 15 confirmed short-handed entrants, and it seems they are not about to accept their exclusion from the big prize lightly. They’ve mounted a lobbying campaign, and enlisted some of the international yachting media to push their cause. 

It would, of course, be churlish to even suggest that there might also be commercial interests in play here. But the announcement of a two-handed offshore event in the Paris Olympics sailing program has certainly prompted an explosion of new 30-foot class designs from some major builders. A win for one of those boats in the Hobart race would deliver a priceless promotional and marketing advantage. But we digress…

The undeniable reality is that sophisticated modern auto-helm systems are performance enhancing. They no longer just maintain a heading. They are programmed tactical weapons that now take into account a host of significant factors including heel angle, wind information and routing. By contrast, under the current rules, fully crewed yachts must be hand-steered throughout a race. 

Could the advantage of auto-pilot be balanced by a handicap adjustment? Possibly, but neither of the prevailing handicap regimes seem inclined to get involved in the argument. 

IRC has said that there are so many factors (both plus and minus) to consider in comparing small short-handed yachts to larger fully-crewed boats that they cancel each other out and no rating adjustment is appropriate or necessary. ORC includes a separate rating for short-handed yachts, but only in consideration of comparative crew weights, not for auto-helm. 

The dilemma the CYCA has to somehow resolve is that if they allow auto-helm for the two-up fleet as they race for the overall IRC trophy (without a rating penalty), then it follows that they should also allow auto-helm for every other boat racing to Hobart. That would open a whole new can of toredo worms.

Why? Well, at face value, RRS Rule 52 (Manual Power) is simple enough: “A boat’s standing rigging, running rigging, spars and movable hull appendages shall be adjusted and operated only by the power provided by the crew.” 

But this fundamental rule has been honoured more in the breach than the observance for decades. Successive amendments have allowed boats to use stored power to pump water ballast, grind winches and swing canting keels. Rudders are appendages, and, if “adjusted and operated” by an auto-helm system rather than a crew-member, that would be grounds for DSQ without a specific prior waiver in the NoR. 

It’s a tricky one. The two-handers will be angry if they can’t race for the overall prize; the fully-crewed entrants will be angry if they can.

Understandably reluctant to alienate large segments of the Sydney-Hobart fleet, the Cruising Yacht Club has decided to hasten slowly. A definitive ruling on the issue is now to be deferred, pending further ‘consultation with the interested parties. 

While the club’s Sailing Committee apparently accepts that the use of auto-helm on fully-crewed boats is undesirable, they are yet to agree on how its use in the two-handed division could be regulated in such a way that those yachts would still be eligible for the overall IRC trophy.

One possible solution being proposed is to accept limited auto-helm function – wind angle and course only. Even that would already be a distinct advantage on “fire hose” boats hurtling through blinding white water at 15-20 knots. Yet today’s systems are far more sophisticated, exploiting multiple data inputs and instantly turning that stream of information into near-perfect helming. 

And how could any race management team ensure there hadn’t been some cheating during the 628 hard nautical miles from Sydney to Hobart? It would be easy to ‘disable’ most of the auto-helm’s functions just before a yacht crossed the finish line. We’ve already had to deal with an AIS mysteriously switching itself on and off during a recent race.

Whatever ruling the consultation process yields on this issue is likely to be controversial. Nobody has much faith in the ability of ratings to level the playing field, so it will inevitably be a policy decision guided by the perceived principles of the sport. 

For 75 years the race has ennobled the tradition of fully-crewed monohull offshore racing. To many of those Australian and international sailors who have loved the Sydney-Hobart, it would seem a small step from allowing auto-helm to dispensing with crews altogether and sailing the boats South by radio control. 

Meanwhile, medal-hunters should be assured that this will not be an issue in the mixed offshore event at the Paris Olympics in 2024. All the equipment for that race – boats, spars, sails, rigging, deck gear and auto-helm – will be standard issue supplied to competitors by the organisers.

 – anarchist David