Mystery over Wild Oats XI‘s form adds intrigue as five proven supermaxis headline the biggest Sydney to Hobart fleet in 25 years for the 75th edition of one of the world’s greatest ocean races.
A fleet of 157 – the fourth largest – is scheduled to start the race on Boxing Day, when organisers hope for clear skies, rather than the smoky haze that has afflicted Sydney this month and forced the cancellation of the Big Boat Challenge lead-up event.
The weather apart, the biggest question mark heading into the milestone race is over the likely performance of nine-time line honours winner Wild Oats XI.
The great supermaxi suffered rigging, deck and mast damage in November’s Cabbage Tree Island Race.
New and rebuilt parts were made in Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Sri Lanka, and the boat only did her 24-hour qualifier for the race last week.
She is 1200 kilograms lighter than last year and, along with most of the other supermaxis, has undergone modifications.
“There’s a lot of unknowns for us, but, as usual, we’ve got a great team, a great bunch of guys and the boat looks fantastic, so I think it’s going to be good,” Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards said.
There’s no doubt that I think Wild Oats has been a phenomenal machine. To still be competitive after 15 years in our sport is unheard of.’’
In recent years the battle for line honours has been dominated by Wild Oats XI and Comanche, who between them have got to Hobart first in six of the past seven races.
They will be joined on the start line by Black Jack and InfoTrack, which finished second and fourth across the line respectively in 2018, and Hong Kong’s SHK Scallywag 100.
Of the five supermaxis, only SHK Scallywag 100 hasn’t taken line honours and she has finished second and third.
Wind strength and direction will inevitably be crucial along with tactical decision-making as the quintet of big boats perform at their best in different conditions.
While only a handful of boats can aspire to line honours, a much bigger percentage of the fleet will focus on the Tattersall Cup, the trophy awarded to the overall handicap winner.
Conditions, especially the timing of wind shifts, will also play a big part in that.
Last year’s handicap champion Alive is back again, but owner Philip Turner will be aware no boat has taken overall honours in successive years since Freya‘s hat-trick from1964 to 1966.
Love & War, the only other three-time handicap winner of the race, will be in the 2019 fleet.
The most consistently successful boat on handicap in major races in recent years is Matt Allen’s TP52 Ichi Ban, which was overall champion in 2017.
Among the other always-competitive TP52s expected to challenge are Quest, which has taken overall honours twice, once as Balance.
Among the more fancied international entries is France’s Daguet, which finished third overall in 2017 as Patrice, when she was owned by Australian Tony Kirby.
The milestone race has attracted a larger-than-usual contingent of older yachts including Katwincha, a wooden boat built in 1904.
At 105, she’s the oldest boat to contest the race, pre-dating the first Sydney to Hobart by 41 years.
The larger-than-usual fleet will be spread over four starting lines.
No Limit crew member Tony Ellis is set to increase his record for the most races contested by an individual to 52.