Sport is often determined by fine margins and yachting is no exception. After a phenomenal contest between Jim Cooney’s LDV Comanche and the Oatley family’s Wild Oats XI over the full 628nm of the Rolex Sydney Hobart concluded yesterday in the Derwent River, the line honours title for first to finish was eventually decided today in the protest room. An incident between the two 100-footers, shortly after the start, was adjudged in favour of LDV Comanche.
The initial provisional result was reversed to give Cooney a first line honours victory with his new boat in a record time of one day, nine hours, 15 minutes and 24 seconds, bettering by 4 hours 15 minutes, 56 seconds the previous benchmark set in 2016. At the dockside prize giving, Cooney and his crew were rewarded for their success in the southern hemisphere’s pre-eminent offshore race with the J.H. Illingworth Trophy and a Rolex timepiece, true acknowledgment of excellence, determination and endeavour.
In most sporting contests, there can only be one winner. In the battle to be first home in the 73rd Rolex Sydney Hobart, two highly-skilled, aggressively sailed yachts took the fight to each other from the very beginning to the very end. The result turned on a split-second decision taken as the yachts exited the Sydney Heads.
Undoubtedly, Cooney would have preferred to win the race on the water. All the same, he was in a celebratory mood as the enormity of his achievement sank in: “It was an exhilarating race. I loved every minute of it. The boat exceeded my expectations and who’d have thought we’d finish on the 27 December turning the Hobart into an overnighter!”
“The real race was on the water,” Cooney continued. “The result is a fitting testament to the crew and the potential of the boat. The guys were fantastic. Stan Honey is not just a navigator, he is the navigator. Jimmy Spithill, too, is brilliant. Nothing escapes his attention anywhere on the water or around him.”
Veteran navigator, Honey, on his sixth Rolex Sydney Hobart and previously a line honours winner in 2015, had this to say: “The conditions suited Comanche, but it’s always a challenge in a 100-footer in that kind of wind to sail the boat in such a way that you don’t break stuff. We had a lot of very good sailors paying very careful attention and my decisions were geared to giving us the fastest passage.”
Kelvin Harrap, along with America’s Cup star and former Rolex World Sailor of the year Spithill, provided the tactical acumen. Harrap reflected on the character of the race: “We struggled a little with the wave-length, and kept putting the nose in the water a lot more than previously. We had our biggest sail on in 35 knots, and things were starting to get a bit crazy. We had to back off at one stage because people were getting washed around the deck. It was then a huge test to go from blasting in 30 knots, to being patient and calm in three knots.”
Following the light-wind start on 26 December, the 73rd Rolex Sydney Hobart went from a slow-burning fuse to a fully primed fire cracker overnight. The leading boats lit the afterburners in response to the building north easterly. Armed with a tailwind and initially subdued sea state, the entire fleet enjoyed the dream conditions.
As widely predicted, LDV Comanche relished the opportunity to show her prowess and had built a reasonable lead by the early hours of the second day. 20nm ahead of her nearest rival, she was nearly 50nm ahead of last year’s race record pace. Astonishingly, several others were also bettering the 2016 progress.
The near perfect downwind conditions allowed the pacemakers to set a brutal tempo. The 30-knot nor’easter combined with 1.5 metre waves off the New South Wales coast at daybreak; less jarring than the 3m waves confronting the fleet as it edged into the eastern edge of Bass Strait later in the day.
Dismissing Black Jack and InfoTrack, the two other 100-foot Maxis, Wild Oats XI conducted a dogged pursuit of LDV Comanche; applying pressure and snipping away at the lead. By the late afternoon, the two frontrunners were virtually side by side. The race was compelling viewing.
The Derwent had long been predicted to be the critical point in the race. Whoever entered first would find any physical advantage threatened by the capricious nature of the river. Wild Oats XI and Comanche are polar opposites in hull form. One a wraith-like bullet; the other all power and muscle. According to Mark Richards, the skipper of Wild Oats XI: “The one thing you don’t need in the Derwent is power.”
The contrast between the fast planing conditions experienced earlier in the day and the near-windless finish could not have been greater. From a three-metre seaway, decks awash, constant trimming, crew and weight stacked far aft and on the high side to flat calm, weight forward and minimal movement.
The stress levels were the same. Pressing the accelerator hard for nearly 24 hours straight takes a toll on personnel and equipment. Keeping one’s nerve, eking motion from zephyrs and choosing the right lane in the light is just as demanding. “Hugely stressful times,” according to Richards, despite a combined total of 301 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Races within the Wild Oat’s XI crew.
Navigator, Ian Burns, enjoyed the race despite the eventual result: “We had the most incredible weather window. Historically, this is usually a bash to windward in a southerly, a little bit of hard running and a bit of drifting. Every single race I’ve ever done has had those three things except this one. We were reaching and running with downwind sails the whole time.”
In the end, the race to be first home on the water came down to a single manoeuvre judged to have been mistimed. Yet to remember the line honours contest for this reason would be an injustice. This was yacht-racing in its purest form. Man and machine against the elements in all their guises.