Sydney Hobart: Will it be Supermaxi or Sunfish?

Sunfish on surface
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Over the years sailors have stood and looked at the half model board of the handicap winners of the Sydney Hobart race, going back some 68 races.

The very noticeable thing is that rudders and keels continue to shrink in width and depth, while getting longer and thinner.


While the appendages we are assured, are stronger than ever and the keel bulbs are made of unobtainium or at very least depleted uranium, its hardly a wonder that the biggest and fastest boats in the fleet are becoming more and more concerned about colliding with soft marine objects.

Bob Oatley’s super maxi Wild Oats XI is once again leading the field as Rolex Sydney Hobart line honours favourite. She is expected to win another Hobart line honours race in a row, but to win that crown she has to get to Hobart.

And an ever growing threat to this achievement is the gentle giant of the sea, the sunfish or mola mola, the word’s largest bony fish, which grows up to 2,500kg in weight.

The giant ocean sunfish basks on its side on the surface of the sea and there are lots and lots of them according to Hobart veterans.

'The track to Hobart is littered with sunfish,' said Grant Wharington the skipper of the chainsaw modified 30 metre supermaxi Wild Thing 'You see them every 10 to 15 minutes out there.

'It's not a matter of if you are going to hit one, it's how hard.'

There have been plenty of hard hits. In the 2003 race Wharington's boat came to a dead stop from 13 knots in Bass Strait. At the time Navigator Will Oxley reported, ‘It was a shuddering stop. We stopped dead in the water and we slid sideways, we were preparing to drop sails when what-ever was on our keel came loose and suddenly we were away again.'

In 2004 the same yacht hit a giant sunfish and in 2005 she hit two sunfish during her delivery from Melbourne to Sydney before the race.

In 2005 Skandia was third across the line behind Wild Oats XI and Alfa Romeo. In 2006 she was again third behind Wild Oats XI and Ichi Ban, after breaking her forward canard when she hit a sunfish.

Wild Oats, which went on to win the 2005 Sydney to Hobart, also had a run-in with the giant sea creatures in her lead-up to the race with the impact damaging the rudder on the yacht and then again during the race. Skipper Mark Richards said 'We had three direct hits with sunfish. It wasn't pretty. There was blood everywhere behind the boat after one collision.'

The Pacific Sunfish
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Wharington says 'Sunfish have been a big problem in recent times. I think we’ve all hit them. Ricko (Mark Richards- Wild Oats XI) hit a couple last year I think, and the year before. They’re a pretty easy target, that’s for sure. Unfortunately when you’ve got a canting keel you’ve got three foils in the water and you’ve got plenty of chance of hitting them.'

With 20-30 knot nor'easterlies possibly powering the fleet south at some stages Wild Oats XI, Ragamuffin-Loyal, Lahana and Wild Thing will be sailing at similar 20-30 knot speeds.

'The big issue at these speeds is hitting a sunfish or a shark’ Richards says. 'We’ve hit sunfish at 25 knots and cut it in half. It can stop you dead.'

Richards is sure Wild Oats XI is strong enough to survive such an impact, but her two rudders are very much at risk.

'We'll all be keeping a sharp lookout' said Ricko.

And they all will be… looking for a basking sunfish, about the size and weight of a Vee Dub innocently lolling about, ready to spoil the super maxi party.