It is all action on the Sydney waterfront as sailors prepare for the 75th anniversary edition of the Sydney-Hobart classic and Doyle Sails is in the thick of it with 37 yachts choosing Doyle for their sail wardrobes.
Doyle representatives are also on board a number of yachts for the iconic 628-mile race, adding their expertise and support to race crews competing in this challenging event.
In an offshore race of this length, Doyle CEO Mike Sanderson gives an indication of the intense concentration of the top professional crews when he says the focus is calibrated in metres, not miles.
Sanderson, who lists three America’s Cup campaigns and two Volvo Ocean Race victories in his CV, will be racing for line honours aboard the super-maxi Comanche, owned by Jim Cooney and Samantha Grant of Australia. “It is all about gaining every metre we can, every minute of the race all the way to Hobart. That’s what we have to concentrate on,” says Sanderson during a final five-day training session leading up to the Boxing Day start.
In its stellar resume of race victories and passage records, Comanche has won line honours twice in four Sydney-Hobart starts – setting a new record in 2017 – and this year won the Transpac for the second time.
The Sydney-Hobart is notorious for dishing up a wide range of conditions, from fast running and reaching down the New South Wales coast, to heavy upwind slogs across Bass Strait, to drifting up the Derwent River towards the finish line – demanding a sail inventory for all situations.
“The reality is that you have to be fully prepared to handle everything,” says Sanderson. “You can outsmart yourself pretty quickly if you start leaving gaps in your sail wardrobe. We will set off with a well-rounded inventory and a team that can sail at maximum speed 24 hours a day for a couple of days. That is all we focus on.
“If it is 30 knots upwind, or 30 knots downwind, or all stops in between, we will be going for it. Winning or losing will be down to how we wriggle through the light-air transitions, and going up the Derwent River.
“In our best conditions, we will look to bank every metre we can, because we never know how many metres we will need in the Derwent River.
“The big maxis are all very different. They will all have their day in the sun. We have to maximise our advantages when it is our turn and hope we can sustain our turn longer than the other guys.”
With “the other guys” in the super-maxi division is Infotrack, owned by Christian Beck and racing with Chris Nicholson, head of the Doyle Lake Macquarie loft, in the crew. Nicholson is a two-time Australian Olympic sailor and three-time world champion in the 49er class and has accumulated thousands of offshore miles competing in five Volvo Ocean Races.
This will be his seventh Sydney-Hobart race, but he reckons that makes him a rookie compared with several of his crewmates on Infotrack, seven of whom are in double figures with two having more than 20 Hobarts under their belt.
Like Comanche, Infotrack sits at the wider end of the spectrum compared with Black Jack and nine-time line honours winner Wild Oats XI. “The result will be very weather dependent,” says Nicholson. “Last year it was a skinny boat race. Wild Oats is very well refined for the race, but when you see the numbers Infotrack and Comanche can do, they can put on the miles very quickly. You just have to survive the quiet conditions.”
On sail inventories, Nicholson says Infotrack has some very powerful set-ups with triple headsail combinations such as a J-zero and two large staysails.
“We have built a new J-1 for this race, which is quite a bit bigger than our previous one. It is very powerful and suits this boat nicely, so in the right conditions it should give us some big gains. I am almost hoping for lots of upwind sailing in this race,” he adds, expressing a wish not often heard with a 628-mile race in prospect.
Within the sail wardrobe there are quite large areas of overlap, allowing the trimmers to change gears to match conditions. “These high performance sails really reward good trimmers and drivers,” Nicholson says. “Everything depends on those elements all working together.”
Nicholson sailed with Sanderson on Comanche for the Transpac, but with the switch to Infotrack his place has been taken by another Doyle pro, New Zealander Stu Bannatyne. Bannatyne is one of the most experienced offshore racers in the world, with eight Volvo Ocean races (including four victories), eight Fastnet races, three Transpacs and 11 Sydney-Hobarts on his resume. “Not a bad exchange,” Sanderson agrees.
While the big maxis battle for glory at the front of the fleet, not far behind will be the highly competitive next division comprising 11 TP52s along with very fast 55-62 footers like Hollywood Boulevard and the smaller Cookson canting keel 50-footers.
Statistically, this is the division that has produced the most winners of the coveted Tattersall Cup for the fastest boat on handicap. “Within a tight rating band, we will have 15 or 16 very competitive boats,” says Shane Guanaria, head of Doyle’s Sydney loft, which has 17 customer yachts in the fleet.
He will be in amongst it on board the TP52 Zen, owned by 10-time Sydney-Hobart veteran Gordon Ketelbey.
“The TP52s are very competitive boats and they attract very competitive people,” says Guanaria. “Some of the best sailors in the country will be racing in this division. There is a lot of banter and good cheer between the boats along the dock, but it is all pretty serious on the water.
“Zen is a Corinthian campaign, so the guys have been putting in a lot of training hours over the weekends. Each session, we tend to target specific areas, like reefing and headsail changes, spinnaker peels, where our Doyle cable-less code zeroes can be used to best effect and so on.
“We have put three new jibs and two spinnakers on the boat for this race. We have always felt strong upwind, but a little bit off the pace downwind, so we are hoping the new spinnakers will give us an edge.”
Along with the super-maxis, most of the yachts in Guanaria’s division will expect to finish in about two to three days. “Boats are so much faster these days. The TP52s now finish the race faster than the old 80-footers used to.”
With a bit of luck that means they might start and finish the race within one weather pattern, while the smaller yachts are more likely to be exposed to the full gamut of conditions. “The smaller boats get real value for money. They see it all,” says Guanaria.
“We love the big boats, they are incredible machines, but at the same time I have huge respect for people like Shane Kearns, who go out and do it in much smaller boats. That is on my bucket list,” says Guanaria, who already has 13 Sydney-Hobarts to his credit and an overall win on Victoire in 2013.
(For the record, Kearns is racing an S&S 34, a design which dates back to the 1960s; in 1969, British Prime Minister Edward Heath won the Sydney-Hobart in an S&S 34 called Morning Cloud.)
With 37 yachts carrying Doyle sails, the full range of sizes and types is represented from the super-maxis to the smallest entries. “We are very pleased with that and proud to see the growth in this race for Doyle,” says CEO Sanderson. “It is a testament to the work our lofts have done, the Australian franchises in particular, and it is great to see such a wide spread of representation.”
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