The Sydney to Hobart race record is set to be shattered, but line honours remain up for grabs as Comanche and Wild Oats XI are reduced to a crawl on the Derwent.
Comanche and eight-time winner Wild Oats XI swapped the lead as they flew down the Tasmanian East Coast at speeds of up to 30 knots, courtesy of a solid north-easterly.
Comanche had held a comfortable lead throughout the morning, but Wild Oats XI had been narrowing the gap all day.
The difference between the two varied from more than 20 nautical miles overnight, to be neck-and-neck by the afternoon.
Both leaders stopped dead in their tracks once they entered the River Derwent, with Wild Oats XI just 200 metres behind.
Organisers still expect the race record to be smashed. It could be the first daylight finish in the race for years.
Black Jack, InfoTrack, Beau Geste and Wizard are rounding out the leaders’ pack, all ahead of where the record-breaking Perpetual Loyal was at the same time last year.
Race organisers described it as an “astonishingly fast race”.
Skipper Jim Cooney said Comanche was “sitting comfortably” in what’s been a “rocket trip” so far.
“We were hitting close to 30 knots during the night,” he said. “We’ve had zero damage to report, which is always a great thing crossing Bass Strait.”
Focused on the end game
Cooney said he was keeping a close eye on the opposition.
“It’s always a balance between sailing your own race based on the forecast and our own boat’s performance, but then of course you can’t ignore the opposition, because at your peril you may let them through a gap while you are focusing on your own race,” he said.
“It’s a matter of balancing the both things — our own boat’s performance making the most of our sea.
“It would be very attractive to finish on the 27th rather than the 28th, but we have to finish first to be able to do that.”
Whether the race record will be broken depends on weather conditions on the last leg into the River Derwent, but the lead pack are ahead of or on par with the race record.
On early indications Comanche could be approaching the finish line in Hobart between 8:00pm and 10:00pm, which would give the crew a significant window to break the race record.
Last year’s line honours winner InfoTrack (formerly Perpetual LOYAL) crossed the line at 2.31am, breaking the race record by four hours, 51 minutes and 52 seconds.
If the conditions are light on the Derwent, that could give some of the other contenders a chance, especially Wild Oats XI and Black Jack.
“This is a flat-out drag race. No-one is wandering too far from the pack looking for better breeze further out to sea this year,” spokesman Jim Gale said.
“Basically, the further south a boat is, the more wind it is getting, and the breeze across Bass Strait throughout the day is going to be strong, in the 25- to 35-knot range.
“Keeping the boat in one piece will be day’s great challenge for every crew in the fleet.”
Cruising Yacht Club commodore John Markos said it was likely the leaders would round Tasman Island early this evening, if the weather patterns do not change. He said he was amazed by the pace.
“I still stand absolutely astonished at last year’s record being broken by five hours but we’re looking now at another break of the record … pretty extraordinary,” he said.
“I suspect they’ll be there and we’ll just hope that the Derwent River doesn’t shut down.”
In the race for handicap honours, last year’s winner Wizard (formerly Giacomo) is looking strong.
Near collision ‘not deliberate’
It was a dramatic start to the 73rd race in Sydney Harbour, with Comanche waving its red protest flag after a near miss with other race favourite Wild Oats XI.
Comanche later indicated by radio that it planned to lodge a formal protest.
Skipper Jim Cooney did not believe the near collision was deliberate.
“They were the give-way boat, I think maybe they misjudged it or they were hoping for a little bit of acceleration to get past us in time, but as it turns out they were wrong in that estimation,” he said.
“It was very close. I’d say our bow was only two metres from their stern, maybe even less.
I don’t think it was deliberate, I think it was probably a misjudgement. I think it just happened in the rush of getting out of the heads.”
Race media director Di Pearson said the protest had to be made in writing by Comanche after it reaches Hobart.
“The international jury will hear the arguments from both parties and make their decision based on the protest and what they hear from both those parties,” she said.
Time penalties from five minutes upwards could be applied by the jury if it finds against Wild Oats XI.
The first retirement, Rockall which broke a rudder south of Eden this morning, reduces the fleet to 101 competitors.