SYDNEY – More than 100 yachts set sail Monday in the Sydney-Hobart race as favourable winds raised hopes for a record time in one of the world’s most punishing ocean events.
Fans gathered at coastal vantage points and on scores of spectator boats for a crowded start in the sun-splashed Sydney Harbour, which hours earlier had been shrouded in a thick fog that halted all ferry traffic.
A starting cannon fired to release 109 yachts on the 628-nautical mile (1,200-kilometre) blue water classic. The yachts are set to cross the finish line on Wednesday.
Crews dashed to get out of the city’s harbour, with four 100-foot supermaxis – the fastest boats in the contest – tacking within a few metres of each other in a heart-stopping battle to get the best line out to the open sea.
A final weather briefing on race day predicted “fresh to strong” north to northeasterly winds over the next day or so, giving the big boats a chance to challenge supermaxi Comanche’s 2017 record of one day, 9 hours, 15min and 24sec.
By late afternoon, the four supermaxis were speeding south along Australia’s eastern coast, leading the fleet towards the treacherous Bass Strait and a finish line in the Tasmanian state capital.
Comanche, which took a penalty turn inside the opening 20 minutes but regrouped, held the lead in the race for line honours, with rival supermaxis LawConnect, Black Jack and Wild Oats chasing, an online race tracker showed.
Wild Oats also took a penalty turn in an action-packed start that allowed LawConnect to grab the early advantage, only for Comanche to surge ahead after taking the wide line. The race also had its first dropout with the Hick 40 Avalanche reporting a broken bowsprit.
“We always think we’re going to be the best boat out there and do as well as we can,” Comanche skipper John Winning said ahead of the race. “We’ll just try and outsail the others and win it on that.”
Mark Richards, skipper of nine-time line honours-winning supermaxi Wild Oats, said his crew was buoyant after preparing for exactly these conditions.
“We put all our eggs in one basket and we put all our money on black for a downwind forecast and we have ended up getting it,” he told public broadcaster ABC.
“I think Wild Oats is going to be very fast,” Richards added. “The world is going to find out who is the fastest boat downwind.”
Weather is a critical factor in the race, which was first held in 1945.
Though the supermaxis are expected to be powered by northerly winds to a quick finish as early as Tuesday, slower mid- to small-sized boats will still be in the water in the following days facing possible gales and changes in wind direction.
In 1998, when a deep depression exploded over the fleet in the Bass Strait, six men died, five boats sank and 55 sailors were rescued.
Black Jack took line honours last year after a tight tussle with LawConnect, ending years of frustrating near misses to cross the finish line on the River Derwent after two days, 12 hours, 37min and 17sec.
Ichi Ban, which is not racing this year, was the 2021 winner of the overall handicap prize, which takes into account the yachts’ sizes. The boat pipped rival Celestial in a race where dangerous waves and weather conditions saw many withdraw.
International boats are making a return after the race was cancelled in 2020 for the first time due to the pandemic, and Covid-19 hit the fleet last year.
Entrants come from Germany (Orione), Hong Kong (Antipodes), Hungary (Cassiopeia 68), New Caledonia (Eye Candy and Poulpito), New Zealand (Caro), Britain (Sunrise) and the United States (Warrior Won).
Sunrise is a proven ocean racer, winning the 2021 Fastnet Race in Britain, while Caro has been tipped to take overall handicap honours, although skipper Max Klink played down his prospects ahead of the race saying: “I do not think we are the favourite.” AFP, REUTERS