Richards sees Wild Oats flourish

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The Independent Online



By Lucy Peters

in Hobart

The Australian supermaxi Wild Oats has broken the Sydney to Hobart race record, shaving a little more than an hour off the record, when the hi-tech carbon fibre yacht took line honours sailing only under a headsail.

Last night it was looking increasingly likely that Wild Oats would achieve the first hat-trick in 60 years of also taking the corrected time Tattersall Trophy as overall winner of the 85 starters.

In its first major offshore race since being launched in November, Wild Oats finished the 628 nautical mile race in 1 day 18hr 40min 10sec. The previous record, set by Nokia in 1999, was 1 day 19hr 48min 2sec. Another recently launched supermaxi, Alfa Romeo, finished second.

The Australian supermaxi Skandia and New Zealand's Konica Minolta were battling it out for third. Skandia took line honours in 2003 but capsized in 2004 and had to be rebuilt.

Wild Oats survived a minor scare just six miles from the finish when a mainsail batten broke and the crew were forced to drop the big sail and continue only under a headsail. Despite having only one sail up, Wild Oats flew up the Derwent River at about 10 knots. "We thought it was just too easy going and something had to go wrong and it did," the Wild Oats skipper, Mark Richards, said. "It doesn't matter. We still finished, broke the record and the boys are very happy."

Wild Oats, a hi-tech 30-metre yacht with a canting or swinging keel, won the start of the Sydney-Hobart race on 26 December and flew down Australia's south-east coast with building tailwinds. The usually gruelling classic proved to be a race of navigational tactics with light, fickle winds at one stage seemingly robbing the big boats of a race record.

"They have been benign conditions," said Geoff Lavis, the commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia which organises the Sydney-Hobart race.

Wild Oats' winning strategy was to hug the Australian coast, picking up more favourable breezes, while their arch rival, Alfa Romeo, chose a route further out to sea.

"We knew if it was a downhill race we'd be hard to beat," Richards said. "Alfa Romeo was faster for the first 12 hours but once we got the spinnaker on we took off."

On the first night of sailing Wild Oats clocked 32 knots. "On the first night [we decided] to stick inshore and it really paid dividends," Richards added. "The next day we woke up to find ourselves ahead of everyone and it stayed that way. A great game plan. We stuck to it and it worked."

Under a major rule change for the 2005 race there was no upper speed limit, and that allowed boats an unrestricted use of sail area, water ballast, canting or swinging keels and mast heights. In the past, an upper speed limit had to be imposed for safety reasons but with improvements in yacht design, the race organisers have dropped restrictions on the use of new technology.

"They really haven't had any strong breeze," Lavis said. "These boats are capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots, so they have a lot up their sleeves."

Richards also believes a supermaxi could finish the Sydney-Hobart race in as little as 35 hours. "I'm sure this record will be shattered," he said. "Bigger boats go faster. It's as simple as that."