The day after Christmas marks the start of 56th running of the annual race from Sydney, Australia to the island state of Hobart, Tasmania. Two years ago disaster befell this 630-mile offshore classic when a vicious weather system with 80-knot winds met the fleet, ultimately claiming the lives of six sailors. In the wake of that tragedy, the sailing community in Australia has attempted to strengthen its commitment to safety, and in particular the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the event's organizer, has adopted changes it hopes will allow participants to avoid such disasters in the future.
However, in the final weeks before the start of the 2000 event, the CYCA received a serious and scathing assessment of its conduct during the 1998 event from John Abernethy, the Coroner of New South Wales who conducted a thorough, 22-month investigation of the tragic race. As severe as Mr. Abernethy's findings were, they might have been worse, because he held in his hands the power to significantly limit such races, making this kind of activity accessible only to a few well-funded individuals. Nonetheless, the Hobart race will survive.
The wholesale safety recommendations put forth by Mr. Abernethy have left the CYCA like a boy sticking his finger in the dyke to prevent a flood, and there appear to be plenty of holes that need to be plugged.
Due to Abernathy's report, it is expected that major media organizations will put this year's race under the microscope. Not surprisingly, the club realised that any perceived problem could well explode into detrimental front-page headlines. Thus, the future of this race hinges on the effective management of this year's event.
A lack of time prohibits major changes, but the club was obliged to introduce as many of the Coroner' s recommendations as possible. First, it would have to address the matter of the race management team and, more specifically the Race Director from 1998, Phil Thompson. In his comments, the Coroner said that the race management team abdicated its responsibilities as the 80-knot winds and 80-foot seas developed on the racecourse. He said that it was inexcusable that Thompson in particular did not properly decipher the Bureau of Meteorology's storm warning, adding that the race management team was organized in such a fashion that at the time of crisis it was essentially valueless to the fleet.
Not surprisingly, the club quickly announced that Thompson had "stood down" from his position this year. Retired Royal Australian Navy Rear Admiral Chris Oxenbould replaced him and he was joined by the club's new CEO, three-time Laser world champion Glenn Bourke, the man who managed the sailing for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The good news is that the club has already addressed many of the issues detailed by the Coroner. In particular, it raised the level of offshore crewing experience necessary for a yacht to be accepted as an entry. And just recently, the club introduced additional and compulsory sea safety lectures for crews.
The big surprise came on the issue of liferafts. There was no time for the club to consider the introduction of SOLAS standard liferafts as the Coroner suggested, but it did determine not to accept the four brands of liferaft that the Coroner deemed unsuitable for Category One offshore racing. The club also banned the "Mae West" style life jackets that proved cumbersome and dangerous for some crew in 1998.
Initially it was thought that the life raft ruling would have a serious impact on number of entries for this year's race. But in early December, it was apparent that only 20 percent of the 82 entrants had to scramble for a new life raft thanks to the fact that yacht owners from around Australia contacted the CYCA and offered their acceptable life rafts to participants.
With only a week to go before the start of the race, Bourke said that it was unlikely that any other changes would be made to the safety requirements for this year, but he couldn't rule that out.
All this behind-the-scenes activity has diverted attention from the fact that the 56th Hobart race will be one of the best ever, especially the battle for line honors. There are no fewer than 10 yachts with the potential for being first on the 630-mile course. And all, given suitable conditions, have the potential to lower the amazing record time of one day, 19 hours, 48 minutes, set by the Volvo 60 Nokia last year.
Undoubtedly the outright favorite for first home this year is Neville Crichton's new, spare-no-expense, 80-foot maxi Shockwave
, designed by Reichel-Pugh. She is probably the most technologically advanced maxi on the planet. And Kiwi Crichton, who is now a Sydney resident, is giving the yacht every chance by employing the best possible crew, including members of Team New Zealand' s America's Cup defence syndicate.
If there is a question regarding Shockwave's potential, it's the fact that she is still untried in rough conditions, and that's standard fare for the Hobart race. "I'm worried about us being able to slow her down enough in the rough stuff," said Crichton. "We are still untried in heavy weather. But if we get light-to-medium conditions, with the wind from any direction, then I think we'll be OK."
There are two other 80-plus footers that pose the most serious threats to Shockwave, the proven Swedish 80-footer Nicorette (Ludde Ingvall), and the recently extended and yet-to-be-proven Melbourne-based maxi Wild Thing (Grant Wharington), the largest entry in the fleet.Nicorette
, which like Wild Thing
has the benefit of water ballast, has been fitted with a new mast and keel for the Hobart race and should be at her best in strong winds.
When Wharington' s Wild Thing and Shockwave first went head-to-head last August, the outcome showed that there was an enormous generation gap between the two. Wild Thing would be no match for Shockwave in the Hobart race, so Wharington opted for his only alternative (apart from building a new and larger yacht)--make this one bigger. In late October and early November, the the hull was extended from 70 feet to 83 feet. Wharington hoped that the extra waterline length and the larger spinnakers would make her competitive once more.
George Snow's evergreen maxi Brindabella is certainly a good bet to keep the more fancy maxis honest in rough weather, while Sean Langman's ultra-light, water-ballasted Open 60 Xena was expected to deliver the real surprise with the potential to upstage everyone and arrive in Hobart first. Reaching and running are this machine's forte, and she's already been clocked at 24 knots in flat water with the potential to top 30 knots offshore.
Outside these five yachts any one of the five Volvo 60 class racers, including Stephan Myralf's Nokia, could be first to see the Hobart city skyline on the banks of the Derwent River. Given the same conditions as last year, says Myralf, the boat could again break the record. For the four other Volvo 60s, News Corporation (Jezz Fanstone/Ross Field); TYCO (Michael Castania); Assa Abloy; and Illbruck (Mark Christensen/John Kostecki), the Hobart is part of their training schedule. Next year it will be a leg of the VOR.
So the race for line honors promises to be heated battle. However, as tight as the tension will be on the racecourse, there will be equal anxiety onshore for onlookers, safety authorities, and race management personnel. Here's wishing everyone fair winds for a safe and successful race.
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