Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race – Winning on handicap

Ed Psaltis and Michael ’Mix’ Bencsik - Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2011
Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, organised by the CYCA, is being held on 26th December 2011 (Boxing Day). The race for line honours in the 628 nautical mile race is pretty straightforward. The fastest and largest boat wins. But winning the race on handicap, the ultimate prize for every ocean racer, is a much more complex business.

The fastest boat doesn’t always win. Indeed more often than not it is pipped at the post by an altogether slower yacht

At the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race overall contenders press conference held at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia this morning, super maxi Lahana’s tactician, Carl Crafoord, said, 'I’d like to think we had a shot at line honours, but that’s a big ask'.

Crafoord conceded that Wild Oats XI and Investec Loyal are faster boats, 'but if this is a big boat race I am very confident we can win it.'

What is he on about? Fastest and winner aren’t the same?

It all comes down to each boat’s rating, or handicap. The time a boat takes to get to Hobart is multiplied by its rating, and this ‘corrected’ time decides the winner of the Tattersall’s Cup. And a boat’s rating takes in a host of considerations, like sail area, canting or fixed keel, age, so that a 35-footer can compete on equal terms with a 100 foot maxi.

As Crafoord points out, despite their speed advantage, Wild Oats XI and Investec Loyal have a bigger handicap than Lahana, so they owe her time. 'If we can stay in their weather pattern and they park up, or have a quiet time in the Derwent, and we are in their time zone, we can beat them on handicap.'

In her division, the boats the 98 foot betchoice.com Lahana has to beat across the line are the 63 foot Loki and the 70 foot Ichi Ban, whose canting keels give them similar ratings to the water ballasted Lahana.

The old Hobart adage is: ‘to win the race you have to win your division’, and then hope that the particular weather patterns will favour your division, because this is a marathon and different sized boats sail at markedly different speeds. Each division will likely race in a weather pattern that is completely different from the other divisions.

You win your division by sailing to your rating, to your boat’s full potential, for more of the race than your rivals, though even that may not be enough.

'A third of winning the race is pre-race preparation, a third is sailing the boat well, and a third is weather,' AFR Midnight Rambler’s co-owner Michael Bencsik explains: 'The first two you can control. The rest is a punt. AFR Midnight Rambler is designed to go upwind okay, and really take off when the wind shifts around to the beam or astern.

'She is a bit faster upwind than Bruce Taylor’s Chutzpah, but cannot match the Victorian sled downwind.'

Bencsik is gambling on a race that will have enough upwind time to cancel out Chutzpah’s downwind advantage.

Sean Kirkjian has chosen a Beneteau 45 as the platform for a campaign to win the 2011 Rolex Sydney Hobart that has been in the making for two years. The Beneteau Victoire is good upwind, but will not see AFR Midnight Rambler and Chutzpah for dust, or spray at least, when the wind blows from the north.

'It’s a bit like the tortoise and the hare,' Kirkjian says. 'We’re like the tortoise. We lumber along and keep going at a certain speed all the time. These guys tend to stay with us upwind and when the wind turns they take off. But they are handicapped accordingly.

'Fronts come from the south and we are sailing into them, so you might hit one or even two fronts in a typical Hobart. Sailing north is a different story.'

On top of all this, navigators and tacticians have to make the right choices. Sometimes the weather suits a straight line to Hobart, but sometimes a longer route further out to sea turns out to be fastest. Make the wrong choice and you can blow your race.

'With all the information about the weather you get these days, and the yacht tracker (which shows where your competitors are in real time) it’s like a constantly moving chess game,' says Crafoord.

Finally, you have to win not one race, but two. There is one race to Tasman Island, and one across Storm Bay and up the Derwent River, that tends to go all breathless in the middle of the night.

Two years ago Tony Kirby, skipper of Patrice Six, won the first race hands down, and then lost the second race in the darkness of the Derwent. 'It’s happened to me four times,' Kirby said ruefully. 'We’ll have to get there earlier this year.'

For more information on ‘Handicapping the Hobart’ click here.

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race website