Over its sixty-seven year history, the race record at the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race has only been broken ten times, an average of once every six and a half years. Given that the current fastest elapsed time of one day, eighteen hours, forty minutes and ten seconds was set in 2005, statistics suggest that the feat is due to be surpassed again.
That time was set by Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats XI, a 100-ft Maxi yacht that has come to dominate the Rolex Sydney Hobart, claiming five of the last six line honours titles. She is the standout favourite for this year’s title. The yacht, launched in 2005, has undergone regular and expensive enhancements throughout the past six years, yet has been unable to improve upon her record. Wild Oats XI finished within two hours of her record in 2008, the closest she has come, whilst the time set during her most recent victory saw her finish over 13 hours shy. Proof that in offshore racing, the elements dictate almost everything.
As is form in ocean sailing, the fastest time was broken frequently in the race’s infant years. The inaugural winner was Captain John Illingworth’s 35-ft Bermudan Cutter Rani, who finished, to her surprise, 17 hours ahead of second-placed Winston Churchill. The event evolved quickly, interest grew and entry numbers rose. There were four records set in the first six years alone. Claude Plowman’s Morna achieved the feat twice. Her first triumph arrived in 1946 when the William Fife-designed 65-footer led the race from start to finish, finishing the 628-nautical mile challenge bereft of her main sail. Eerily similar to Wild Oats XI’s famous finish in 2005 when the crew cruised through the last stretch of the Derwent River with only their headsail in tact. The crew reported arriving to a hospitable welcome in Hobart, having the sensation that they had been granted freedom of the city.
Two years later and with a crew of 16, Morna claimed her third consecutive line honours win, almost smashing her own record by a day, courtesy of champagne sailing conditions. She became the first boat in the race’s four-year history to complete the race before the arrival of the New Year. Plowman received a knighthood just hours after crossing the finish line. Under the guise of Kurrewa IV, and new ownership, Morna was to take four subsequent line honours titles and one further race record.
After Margaret Rintoul set a benchmark of four days, two hours and twenty-nine minutes in 1951, the four-day barrier was broken in 1957 by the aforementioned Kurrewa IV, now owned by the Livingstone brothers. Ever since the end of the 1950s, surpassing the fastest time has become a much more irregular feat. In 1962, New Yorker Sumner A. ‘Huey‘ Long steered one of two American record-breakers helming his lovingly-maintained 57-ft Ondine home in just under three days and four hours. This was the first of Long’s three line honours triumphs at the event, the record attempt achieved following a tight battle with Astor in the Derwent River.
Ondine’s record stood for an imperious nine years, when the 73-ft Helsal, owned by Dr Tony Fisher, the only purely Australian crewed and built race record holder, shaved barely two hours off the target. She marked a trend: at the top end of the fleet, the faster boats were getting bigger. A ferro-cement yacht, Helsal was nicknamed the Flying Footpath. Her victory is seen as something of a miracle given the problems encountered in rendering her race-ready and that her array of sails was relatively sparse and out-dated compared to her rivals.
The second United States success was achieved by Kialoa III in 1975. She shattered Helsal’s 1973 time by just under eleven hours, the Sparkman & Stephens 79–footer taking advantage of ideal conditions and a fantastically consistent race, sailing at 15-20 knots throughout the second day. Overall, she averaged a speed of over 10 knots, not outstanding when compared to today’s Maxis, but significant at the time. Californian Jim Kilroy had already helmed his Kialoa II to line honours four years earlier. When the crew arrived in Hobart at 03:36, the sky was so dark that the shoreline was barely visible. Kialoa III dominated Maxi racing during the mid-1970s – she was also the fastest on the water in the Transatlantic and Fastnet Races in 1975. Quite a year.
Where others had tried and failed, Hasso Plattner’s 80-ft Reichel-Pugh Morning Glory succeeded, breaking Kialoa III’s record by a meagre 29 minutes in 1996. It is almost startling that in an era of outstanding developments in the design and construction of yachts, and the onboard apparatus, that the record remained unsurpassed for so long. Indeed: almost a minute for every year that had passed. The 1996 race was renowned for a particularly harsh start with winds hitting 40 knots and steep sea state building up. Morning Glory enjoyed a stretch of cruising at 30 knots before the gusts abated near Tasman Island. But for the softening of conditions, she would have beaten the record by a much greater margin.
Following the tragic events of 1998, when six sailors lost their lives in harrowing conditions, 1999’s race was characterised by the arrival of the forecast strong gusts and record-breaking conditions once more. The Volvo 60 Nokia sliced a massive 18 hours off the short-lived1996 figure, cruising down the South Wales Coast and into the Bass Strait, in winds of 30-40 knots. The race was a spinnaker extravaganza. The water-ballasted Nokia, led by Stefan Myralf and Michael Spies, one of an incredible seventeen yachts to break the record that year!
In 2005, the most recent race record went to Oatley’s Wild Oats XI, another Reichel-Pugh design. Led by skipper Mark Richards, Wild Oats’ commanding lead over the pack, set with an average speed of 15 knots, gave her an overall handicap win ensuring she was the first boat since the inaugural year to claim all three of the race’s main prizes: line honours, race record and Tattersall’s Cup. Wild Oats XI starts as favourite this year to beat her own record. Only one yacht has ever achieved that. Has the time come?