Published: Wednesday, 02 November 2016

The 628-nautical miles of endeavour, drive and determination which underpin each and every edition of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will again come to the fore at this year’s 72nd running of one of the world’s most famous, and revered, yacht races. The 2016 edition will start on Monday Dec 26 at 13:00 (AEDT) and has received 100 entries.

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race To Return In Dec

(Photos: Stefano Gattini / Rolex Press Room - Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2015)

The Rolex Sydney Hobart, organised by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA), has run every year since its inaugural race in 1945. Rolex has been title sponsor since 2002 and the race forms one of the core events in its annual yachting calendar. A stringent examination of seamanship and a genuine test of human endeavour, this elite competition has, throughout its history, been defined by the pioneering feats and intrepid spirit of adventure of those who participate. 5,828 yachts have started the 71 editions of the race, while 4,812 have finished the race. The 1,016 yachts that have failed to finish are testament to the race’s difficulty. 

The start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart is one of the most viewed sailing events in the world, and arguably the only one that unites an entire nation. On Dec 26, Australia is in a festive mood. Just when the traditional international test cricket match in Melbourne breaks for lunch, the starting signal for the Rolex Sydney Hobart is fired, with an estimated one million Australians watching live from one of Sydney Harbour’s many vantage points, on television, or from the water itself.

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race To Return In Dec 1

During the race start, iconic landmarks like the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge will pay witness to the action out on the water as a fleet of around one hundred yachts ranging from 100-ft cutting-edge Maxis, crewed by elite professional sailing talent, to 30-ft family-sailed yachts jostle for space at sea. The record number of yachts to start a Rolex Sydney Hobart is 371, which marked the 50th edition of the race in 1994.

While the start is a public occasion, the race can soon become an isolated experience for those competing. The fleet disperses as the sight of dry land fades. While some crews have other yachts for company, many will sail alone without a competitor in sight. The race is a test of resources, notably for those out at sea the longest, whose main goal is to finish before the year ends. Crews manage carefully planned watch-systems to ensure energy levels are sustained. The race is demanding both physically and mentally, with continual tactical and navigational decisions required.

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race To Return In Dec 3

The famous 628nm racecourse takes the fleet south along the New South Wales coast of the Tasman Sea before crossing the eastern edge of Bass Strait, and continuing down the east coast of Tasmania before the final, sometimes frustratingly slow, leg up the Derwent River to the historic port of Hobart. Competitors must be prepared for all kinds of conditions, often within the same race. This is a punishing contest where the elements can escalate dramatically and, on occasions, be unforgiving.

The 1998 edition of the race witnessed severe storms, the sinking of five yachts and the loss of six lives in Bass Strait. The organisers’ response was pro-active: new safety measures and regulations were introduced immediately after the disaster and given their global resonance adopted around the world.

Six yachts – Rani (1945), American Eagle (1972), Kialoa II (1977), New Zealand (1980), Sovereign (1987), Wild Oats XI (2005, 2012) – have done the double, achieving the momentous feat of winning line honours and the Tattersall’s Cup in the same year.

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race To Return In Dec 7

The one thing all crews can be assured of is a warm welcome when reaching Hobart. The arrival of the first yacht is always a significant occasion, of great media and public interest. In the modern era of the race, one yacht - the late Bob Oatley’s 100-ft Maxi Wild Oats XI - has dominated line honours, finishing fastest in eight of the last 11 races.

For the past two years, Wild Oats XI has had to contend with fierce competition, notably in the shape of Jim Clark and Kristy Hinze Clark’s Comanche. This sporting rivalry between two of the world’s most powerful 100ft Maxis added an extra layer of intrigue to an already fascinating race. Wild Oats XI prevailed over the then newly-launched American yacht in 2014. A year later, Comanche claimed line honours as Wild Oats XI suffered a torn mainsail and was forced to retire during the first night at sea.

Wild Oats XI, skippered to all her successes by Mark Richards, will seek a return to glory and a ninth line honours title in 2016. She has twice set the race record at the Rolex Sydney Hobart. In 2012, she set the current benchmark time of one day, 18 hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds. The race record has been broken 11 times in the race’s history.

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race To Return In Dec 5

Finishing first is not the most sought-after prize at the Rolex Sydney Hobart. It plays second to claiming the famous Tattersall’s Cup and Rolex timepiece as overall winner on handicap.

The handicap system is a democratic one, ensuring the target of victory is theoretically open to any boat in the fleet. The weather conditions play their part. How crews manage the race collectively, tactically and navigationally is even more important. The roll of honour over 70 years of the race demonstrates the rich variety of yachts to have won. Over the past decade alone, 10 different yachts have triumphed, ranging from 40 to 100 feet.

Last year’s winner was the 52-foot Balance. Defending this title will prove a difficult feat for Paul Clitheroe and his crew. The last yacht to win back-to-back races was Freya over 50 years ago – a clear sign of both the race’s unpredictability and its stringent demands on those competing.

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race To Return In Dec 4

The first winner of the race was the 30-ft Rani, sailed by British Captain John Illingworth, one of the race’s founding-fathers. Rani finished in six days, 14 hours, 22 minutes, arriving on the evening of New Year’s Day 1946.

For many competitors, once they have finished their first race, it becomes a genuine passion, almost an obsession. Characters like Tony Cable who has sailed the race on 50 occasions; Sean Langman who has skippered among the largest, fastest yachts in the fleet and now helms one of the smallest; Syd Fischer who raced 47 times as a Skipper; Adrienne Calahan, the world-renowned female sailor who has competed most times, are typical of the personalities who demonstrate the allure of this race. 

Internationally, the race’s appeal is vast with yachts frequently representing countries from Asia, Europe and the United States and significant media coverage across the globe. The last overseas winner of the Rolex Sydney Hobart was Roger Sturgeon’s Rosebud from the United States in 2007. 

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race To Return In Dec 2

(2015 overall winner Paul Clitheroe)

The race has always held a magnetic appeal, attracting not only sailors of all backgrounds but politicians, business leaders and stars from other sports. Succeeding at the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race demands many qualities – excellent seamanship, effective teamwork, tactical guile and a desire to push the limits. Competitors must respect the elements, act quickly under pressure and overcome the constant challenges they face. This drive for excellence and pursuit of glory are qualities shared with title sponsor Rolex.