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Rolex Sydney Hobart Race: Rio’s Rise and Fall

Rio 100's navigator Peter Isler looks back at where the 70th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race was won and lost.

December 31, 2014
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Sitting back home in California after my first sleep in a real bed since Christmas night, the beautiful island of Tasmania is fading from view. Once more, I’ve finished a race and jetted off within hours of crossing the line while I remind myself that “next time” I should stay and have a look around.

The 2014 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race was a “great race” for the Rio100 team. On Manouch Moshayedi’s new 100-footer the race provided an excellent opportunity to learn about the boat and how to sail it. We were fourth across the line, and enjoyed a great light-air battle with Ragamuffin and Black Jack in the last 40 miles, sailing along Tasmania’s southern coast.
The 70th running of this infamous race featured varied conditions. And although this part of the world can serve up truly challenging conditions, on Rio we never saw more than 35 knots, and that was sailing downwind for just a couple of hours. After the always spectacular start in Sydney Harbor, the first 18 hours were a hard upwind slog in 25 knots and big seas, jarring conditions for any boat, and especially for a modern 100 footer that sails upwind at better than 11 knots. Rio proved up to launching off waves with aplomb, but in our “Transpac Race” optimized mode there was no way we were able to keep up with the canting keel super maxis and Volvo 70s in this condition. They were far over the horizon by the time the wind started to fade and the leaders sailed into leading edge of the high-pressure ridge that ultimately split the big-boat class into two fleets. Just 10 miles farther south than Ragamuffin at breakfast time, that was enough for race leaders Comanche and Wild Oats to break away from the fleet into a completely different universe of wind conditions that they would enjoy for the rest of the race.

While those two made it south of the burgeoning ridge and would be racing on starboard tack to Tasman Light, the rest of the big-boat fleet, led by unlucky Ragamuffin, which had to switch gears and admit defeat, sailing back to the beach to get to the sea breeze that would prevent them from being passed by the 100 odd smaller boats that were already putting up spinnakers and enjoying what would for them be a mostly downwind ride for the rest of the race. That is another hallmark of the race: The small boats were always coming up from behind with more wind.

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On Rio100, we admitted defeat in getting south of the ridge’s axis made the decision to cut our losses and head to the beach early, and by mid afternoon our reward was earned as the tracker showed us third in fleet, which we defended all the way to the last miles of the race.

After a beautiful afternoon passage close aboard to the SE corner of Australia spinnaker running in 15 knots of wind, we speared off into the infamous Bass Strait and a glorious night of sailing in light winds, with high pressure and amazing stars. I saw more falling stars that night than I’ve ever seen in any race.

But shifting back for a moment—it was during Saturday afternoon that Wild Oats made their move. Realizing they couldn’t get past Comanche to leeward on a light-air jib reach, they hardened up, forcing Comanche to face the kryptonite that modern wide hulls succumb to when the wind power isn’t enough to overcome the hull drag.

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Talking to Iain Murray and some of the other guys on Wild Oats at the airport—they said the last few Hobart races have featured at least 30 percent light-air conditions—and this year was no exception. Even though the two leaders were south of the ridge, they were still “enjoying” high-pressure conditions while they reached straight at Tasman Light. It was certainly impressive that the much narrower Wild Oats was still in touch with Comanche when the going got light, and that’s testament to the team’s continued effort to tweak and improve the boat. Comanche showed enough to make everyone in the fleet realize that this boat is something special and has a bright future.

For Rio100, our most memorable moment in the race came the early afternoon on December 28, while sailing downwind on starboard jibe in about 12 knots of wind. All of a sudden, we felt a hard bang and Manouch, who was on the helm, was thrown down hard on the deck by the force of the wheel spinning. I grabbed the wheel to prevent the imminent jibe to no avail. The rudders were stuck hard over to port and the massive 100-footer went into a crash jibe and rounded up with the spinnaker now through the fore triangle. Looking down over the side of the radically heeled boat, we could see the culprit, a big ocean sunfish had wedged the rudders over. The thing finally flipped off and we regained control and soon jibed the boat back on course. A moment later, when Manouch got up with nary a scratch, we had a good laugh, but had we been sailing in more wind (as we would a few hours later) the results would not have been so humorous.

The final afternoon developed as expected as the wind built to 30 knots and we shifted down to our smallest kite, the fractional A6. On the tracker, Ragamuffin and Black Jack were starting to show their prowess a few miles astern, but we only had a couple of hours to go to Tasman Light and the corner where the winds would fade away again. Everything was going great, with Gavin Brady doing a fine job on the helm keeping the boat flying on its feet. But the wave conditions got worse and worse, building into short, nasty steep waves that were beginning to cause the bowsprit and spinnaker tack to get damp. There was no way to keep the bow out of the water in such conditions, and 30 knots of boatspeed means that when the sprit does take a nose dive, there’s tons of pressure on the tack of the spinnaker. The A6 was hanging in there, earning its name “Tonka” until it finally reached its limit. After the recovery, we put up our furling reaching sail—the R2—and watched the boatspeed dip. Looking astern, we could see Rags and Black Jack coming on fast, but they too must have suffered the same fate with their running sails as they were running furling reaching sails, too.

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We got around Tasman Light less than a mile ahead of Ragamuffin and shifted gears into light air reaching/upwind mode for the final 40 miles to Hobart. Although we were ready for the race to end quickly, we knew our best chance to hold our third place was for light tricky conditions to prevail. We got our wish for most of the early evening, as the boats drifted along, trading 2-knot puffs. Finally, a 12-knot northerly pushed off the shoreline and Ragamuffin scorched past. The final seven miles of beating up the Derwent River to the finish line was a classic match race. We must have tacked on the turbo charged Volvo 70, Black Jack, a dozen times to keep them behind us.

All in all, it was a great race for us. Manouch’s goals with the boat are the west coast’s classic downwind sleighrides—Transpac, Cabo other “Mexican” races—but there’s no better way to learn about a new boat and shake it down than to take it in a good hard race. This year’s Hobart Race threw a variety of conditions at us, and the boat proved tough and resilient and plenty slippery in light to moderate conditions. And so ends the Southern Hemisphere tour for Rio100. The boat heads up north as deck cargo on a ship next month and will be racing in Southern California by springtime.

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