A roller coaster for Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet

Michael Hiatt’s Cookson 50, Living Doll - Rolex Sydney Hobart Race

The pace slowed at the head of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race as the three leading maxis sailed into southerly headwinds crossing Bass Strait on the approach to the northeast coast of Tasmania.

At 8pm Thursday (Dec 27) Wild Oats XI was still leading City Index Leopard by approximately 19 nautical miles with another 13nm to Skandia.

This morning's moderate to fresh sou'wester which put the three 98ft canting-keeled maxis on a fast and wet 'firehose' close reach under large specialist reaching headsails eased and slowly headed them. The speeds of 12-15 knots they were hitting in the morning eased back to 8.5-12 by lunch time.

The close reaching in a moderate wave pattern suited the beamy Farr-designed Leopard. She has a chine in the aft third of her topsides when the boat is two-sail power reaching.

Owner/skipper Mike Slade from the UK explains: 'If the boat is balanced properly she will heel a little bit and sit on the chine which gives you a much cleaner wake on the leeward side. It makes the boat think that it is longer than it actually is.'

Wild Oats XI power reaching in Bass Strait - Rolex Sydney Hobart Race

However throughout the morning Leopard was unable to make any gain on the 11nm lead that Wild Oats established in the straight downwind VMG running conditions overnight after the Boxing Day start.

But Leopard did hang in with Wild Oats, sailing a similar track and within distance and could be a real threat tonight in the light winds expected along the Tasmanian coast. During the day Leopard steadily stretched her lead over Grant Wharington's four-year-old Don Jones-designed Skandia to 11nm. By evening, with winds lightening and shifting southeast, Wild Oats drew away again.

While Bob Oatley's Reichel/Pugh designed Wild Oats XI, skippered by Mark Richards, is well-positioned to be first to finish for the third year in a row, her chance of breaking the race record she set in 2005 looks to have slipped away with the heading winds.

To beat the record time of one day 18 hours 40 minutes and ten seconds she would have to finish before 0740 tomorrow morning (Dec 28). Throughout today Wild Oat's estimated finish time blew out from two hours outside the record to five hours.

Farr 45, Pretty Woman - Rolex Sydney Hobart Race

Forecasts and weather observations from Tasmanian coastal stations were not promising for the leaders closing in on Tasmania in the last critical miles of the 628nm course. Variable 5-15 knot winds were forecast for the waters east of Flinders Island in Bass Strait and the upper east coast of Tasmania.

Eddystone Point at the northeastern tip of Tasmania reported 15-19 knots from the southeast and St Helens, a third of the way down the east coast, had a south-sou'easter of 9-14 knots. A light southeaster is blowing in Hobart this evening.

IRC handicap overall leader was reckoned to be Huckleberry, a 25-year-old S&S 34 owned by Steve Humphries of Perth and one of the smallest boats in the race, followed by the maxis Wild Oats XI, Skandia, Leopard and then Rosebud, American Roger Sturgeon's Farr-designed STP 65.

Alan Whiteley's TP52 Cougar II retired from the race with chain plate damage and headed to Eden on the New South Wales south coast, bringing the total number of retirements to three in this unusually benign Hobart race. Seventy-nine boats are still racing.