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Rolex Sydney Hobart: And the winner is...

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Balance - Rolex/Kurt Arrigo
Balance - Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

In most sports working out who has won is dead easy - the winner breaks the tape first, scores more points or runs in a limited time or wins more sets than their opponent - even in most handicap races, because of staggered starts and different weights, the first across the line is the winner.

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But it just isn’t that simple in ocean racing, and especially in big ocean racing events like the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s Rolex Sydney Hobart. Nor should it be. Because the Hobart isn’t just a yacht race, it is a crew race, and the competing crews are on vastly different platforms.

Imagine a horse race where some of the jockeys were on thoroughbreds, some on hacks, some on Shetland ponies and some on mules and what you want to reward is the best jockey.

What we are trying to reward is the crew that gets the most out of their boat, however fast it is, and sails the tactically smartest race. So we handicap, or rate the boats, because a big boat is always going to go faster than a little boat, and a planing boat that skips across the water will outpace a displacement hull that goes through the seas.

So there are a whole bunch of races within the race, which can produce up to nine winners. How come?

First there is the straight out dash for line honours. These days, if your boat isn’t 100 foot long, it is not going to happen: unless maybe you have a V70 round the world racer, it is a wild downwind race, and all the 100 footers have gone by the wayside. Can happen.

Line honours is the sexy part of the race. The boats that take your breath away as they sprint up Sydney Harbour towards the Heads or career over and through the waves of Bass Strait like a runaway freight train.

If the wind blasts out of the north-east over the first 36 hours, then dies or turns south after the big boats have tied up in Hobart, it is possible for the line honours boat to also win the race on handicap, (Wild Oats XI has done it twice) but generally these greyhounds are set up to go as fast as possible, with the biggest sails they can carry, and hang the handicap.

Because the biggest boats are so fast these days, after a few hours they are effectively racing on a different racecourse to the rest of the fleet. Different weather. Different waves.

Behind them the smaller boats settle in for the grind. Some will take a couple of days to reach Hobart, some will be lucky to get there before New Year’s, some will be lucky to get there at all. Almost all are in with a chance of winning Australian yachting’s most coveted prize, the Tattersall Cup.

This is awarded to the outright winner of the race on IRC handicap.

Under IRC, a number of measurements are made of each yacht to come up with a Time on Time Calculation (TTC). The faster the boat, the higher the TTC. Each yacht’s elapsed time over the course (the actual number of hours it takes to finish the race) is multiplied by this TTC, and the boat that gets to Hobart in the least ‘corrected time’ wins and becomes the Overall winner.

So a boat that gets to Hobart quickly, and looks like it is going to win, may have to wait a day, maybe longer, before it can be sure that one of the boats at the back hasn’t pipped them at the post.

The overall winner will be the winner of one of the IRC divisions. Depending on the size of the boat, it will be allocated to one of these divisions, so every skipper’s first job is to win their division, and then hope that fate, or rather the weather gods will favour their division. A fast downwind race will generally favour the bigger planing boats. A slow, upwind race will favour the displacement and all-round boats at the back of the fleet.

But not all the boats race under the IRC handicap and some may race under both IRC and ORCi. IRC is relatively simple but secretive. The formula used to determine a boat’s rating is unpublished, to restrict designers’ ability to ‘game’ the rule.

But some boat owners distrust that ‘secret’ element, and prefer the transparency of ORCi, which takes a great many more measurements than IRC to calculate the theoretical speed of a boat in any particular wave and weather condition. The winner on ORCi is the crew that sailed their yacht closest to its theoretical potential over the particular conditions of the race.

And finally there is PHS, which actually rates boats on how they have done in their previous club races. This category tends to appeal to the more cruising style of yachts as well as some of the more specialised boats that may be designed with big masthead spinnakers and more for, say, predominantly downwind events or unhandicapped races and therefore rate so badly under IRC and ORCi they could never compete in a conventional ocean race.

Yes, it is confusing. But remember, the Rolex Sydney Hobart is, at its best, a test of sailors, not bank balances. Any crew, whether they have won line honours, the Tattersall Cup or their division has sailed a great race.

The race starts on Boxing Day at 1300hrs AEDT and will be broadcast live on the Seven Network throughout Australia.

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