An Old-fashioned Rolex Sydney Hobart

After several years of mostly tactical racing in comparatively benign conditions, the 2010 Rolex Sydney Hobart is set to return to its more traditional ways, with meteorologists telling competitors they are in for some very tough, boat and spirit-breaking sailing for at least the first 300 nautical miles of the race.

The Bureau of Meteorology has predicted that early in the race the fleet will strike a southerly change on the New South Wales coast, and by early Sunday evening the winds will have built to between 20 and 30 knots.

Fortunately, the current will not be a fast as in recent years, so the waves will not be so steep, but in the cantankerous seas off the east coast, where waves seem to bounce back off the continent and come at you from a host of different angles, it will make for a cold night on a bucking bronco of a boat, the crew perched on the perpetually drenching rail.

“It is going to be pretty tough going,” says the Bureau’s regional director NSW Barry Hanstrum. “There is very little indication of any downwind sailing.”

On Monday a low pressure area pushing below Tasmania will reinforce the first southerly. As the frontrunners launch across Bass Strait they are expected to plunge into 30 to 40 knot headwinds and 12 to 15-foot seas.

After battling across the strait the yachts will then have to deal with fickle winds on the lee of Tasmania, becoming more fickle as the yachts move down the coast, while the boats behind them continue to see fresh winds, potentially swinging towards the west to give them a chance to fast reach.

With this forecast you can forget about race records, says Ian Burns, co-navigator of line honors favorite Wild Oats XI. He thinks that for the first 300 nautical miles of the race they will be trying to slow the 100-foot maxi down, to keep her in one piece.

”The real challenge of the first couple of nights will be keeping the boat together. We’ll be slowing down rather than necessarily trying to break any records or break our opposition. We just want to be sure we don’t break ourselves.”

Burns thinks Wild Oats XI could take up to two and a half days to reach Hobart, almost a day longer than her 2005 record pace of 1 day 18 hours and 40 minutes.

For every skipper the challenge will be the same for the first 48 hours; don’t break the boat, and somehow keep the crew rested enough, well fed enough, warm enough, so that when the time for intense tactical racing down the Tasmania east coast falls due on Tuesday and Wednesday they are completely switched on.

While the current long-range forecast would appear to favor the 50- and 60-footers this year, five days is a long time in the weather business. The timing of fronts, the wind coming in at just that slightly different angle can open everything up. It is still too far out for the weather models to tell us much about what will happen after late Wednesday.

Will the wind swing right round to the north west on Thursday, blasting the tail enders home and turning this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart into one for the littlies? Will it stay on the nose, favouring the older, IOR style of yacht that was designed to claw its way to windward and to hell with fast reaching? That’s what it did in 2006, when the Tattersall’s Cup was carried off by the veteran Love & War after skipper Lindsay May delivered a master class in exploiting the currents.

“I’d put my hard earned on the boats just a little above the middle of the fleet” is the how CYCA Commodore Garry Linacre puts it, “but some of the older boats that have a very strong accent in the IRC ratings towards windward work will be worth having a good look at. Boats like Spirit of Koomooloo, that sort of boat.”

For now though, all we know for certain is that the first two days will test the mettle of every crewmember and every yacht in the fleet. No one can win if they cannot survive those first days intact.

For more on the 2010 Rolex Sydney Hobart, including real-time racing on Boxing Day, click here.

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