|SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA-(24-12-2004) “For the last two years we haven’t needed our wet weather gear. That is over.” That was the droll summary of Race Committee chairman Tim Cox after the skippers of the 117 yachts competing in the 60th anniversary Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race were today given a full briefing on the likely weather they will encounter during the 628 nautical mile ocean classic.
For most it was grim news indeed. Gale force winds, big seas, biting cold, and even hailstones were all in the mix.
All up, the prognosis on Christmas Eve is worse than the preliminary outlook circulated just 24 hours earlier.
Peter Dunda, of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, told the skippers they could expect a fast spinnaker dash down the New South Wales coast in ideal north-easterly winds following the 1.10pm start from Sydney Harbour on Boxing Day, 26 December 2004.
However, the fleet will see conditions deteriorate rapidly early Monday, 27 December as they sail down the New South Wales South Coast. North to northwest winds of 15 to 25 knots will give way to a southwest change at 25 to 35 knots during the morning. By evening the winds in Bass Strait will increase to 35 to 45 knots, and the swell will rise from moderate to heavy. The temperature will also drop sharply.
By Tuesday, 28 December, it will be very cold at sea, and the southwesterlies will reach 40 to 50 knots, sometimes 60 knots in squalls that could contain hailstones. It is likely to be so cold there could be snow in the Tasmanian highlands and in the Alps on the mainland. At the peak of the gale, wave heights may average six to nine metres, with the possibility that some waves will reach twice that size.
For the smaller boats at the back of the fleet it will be a long, tough slog. The gale will continue through Wednesday, and Dunda said that even on Thursday the conditions would be “pretty poor”.
Following the forecast the consensus at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia is that the 2004 Rolex Sydney Hobart will be a big boat race. Iain Murray, who had fancied the handicap chances of the 60 foot rocket ship Targé when he steered her to victory last week in the Rolex Trophy conceded that this is far from a dream forecast for the lightweight boat which is owned by Steven David.
“I think you are looking at one of the two 98 footers (Skandia and Konica Minolta). I haven’t seen (Ludde Ingvall’s just launched 90 footer) Nicorette, so it’s unknown,” said Murray.
Skandia owner/skipper Grant Wharington, who won line honours in 2003 agreed. “There is a big possibility one of the three maxis will get line honours and handicap. It doesn’t look likely that the record will be broken though, unless the southerly change takes longer to arrive.”
But if they want to take the double, the three maxis will have to get to Hobart first. Sean Langman, the owner/skipper of the Open 66 AAPT summed it up: “It comes down to being able to reef (reduce the sail area) the sails without breaking things.” Wharington agreed that in conditions like these crew work will be well and truly tested, and a slow reef can do a lot of damage to a big boat in the expected conditions.
“Big boats are a big handful,” Iain Murray observed, “and I am sure there will be a few of us waiting there to pick up the scraps.”
The last big boat to take line and overall handicap honours in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race was Sovereign in 1987.
One skipper who was very happy after the forecast was Andrew Short, the skipper of the Volvo 60 Andrew Short Marine. “Oh yeah, this is exactly what we have been waiting for. Our boat really loves that 30 to 50 knot stuff.”
Short reckons that he if he can keep within 45 miles of the maxis as they scoot away on the first day he will be able to close the gap in the southerlies crossing Bass Strait. “So we’ll be neck and neck by the end of the second day, and if the wind holds we’re looking good and if it drops they’re looking good.”
While not as bad as the horror races of 1984, 1993 and 1998, for the small boats it looks like 2004 will be a rerun of 2000; a cold, wet slog that will test the limits of their endurance.
CYCA commodore Martin James says that all the boats have been well prepared for these sort of conditions, and race officials will keep the fleet up to date with as much weather information as necessary so that the skippers can make the right decisions. He ruled out ordering any boat to abandon the race though. “In directing a yacht to shore we could be directing them into danger,” he said. “The responsibility ultimately lies with the skippers.”