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Hamilton Island Race Week: Mark Richards on the Wild Oats

by Richard Gladwell/Sail-World.com/nz 21 Aug 12:53 BST 21 August 2019
Wild Oats X - Day 3 - Hamilton Island Race Week, August 20, 2019 © Craig Greenhill / Saltwater Images

Day 3 of Hamilton Island Race Week was not for the faint of heart.

All week big breezes had been promised for Wednesday, the lay day in the series. However, they arrived a day early, but for a shorter than forecast visit.

A check further south of Hamilton Island, located on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, showed that winds had eased - giving Principal Race Officer Denis Thompson the courage to heed the Strong Wind warning and fly a postponement with a view to getting racing away in the early afternoon.

It was the right call, and sailors got the best of both worlds - strong broad-reaching conditions after the start, then easing for the upwind work, followed by a quieter run home.

The Whitsunday's proved once again that they are one of the world's great racing venues. In light winds, you admire the scenery and leave the rest of it to the navigators and tacticians.

In the breeze, it is a different story, expect fast rides over long stretches of oceanic like conditions. Might not be the Southern Ocean - but it gets close.

Most interest hinged around the top speed of the MOD70 (Karl Kwok), skippered by Gavin Brady, in the winds which had moderated to a still-healthy 25-26kts?

For the smaller boats - the 66ft Wild Oats X, a couple of 62fters and TP52's - they were matching the wind speed downhill, and surfing on the gentle ocean swells.

Trying to capture the action from the media boat while travelling downwind at these speeds proved to be a challenge - fortunately with only one camera-killing wave coming over the bow.

Beau Geste was a magnificent sight in the conditions as the VPLP design tore downwind at speeds quicker than the wind, hitting over 35kts. Surprisingly she stayed on top of it all - with plenty of high-speed spray flying from her bows - and outwardly there were few signs that crew were backing off.

Later they reported being a little under-rigged for the conditions, in which a stronger breeze was expected. The IRC Division 1 boats didn't have to make that sort of call before the start.

"We had 25kts of windspeed and 26kts of boatspeed on the first reach," Wild Oats X skipper Mark Richards told Sail-World on the dock after the race. "It is good fun - really good fun!"

"Our only problem was the TP52's were going about the same speed!"

"It was a good day's yachting although it calmed down a lot towards the end and everyone had a nice day's sailing."

Wild Oats X took second overall in this years Rolex Sydney Hobart with an all-female crew, carried a full main upwind with a #4 jib.

"Downwind we had the full-sized chutes on so it was very comfortable."

"I think the Race Committee did a good job holding us back, and keeping it safe for everyone", Richards added.

He expects the breeze to settle in at 13-16kts for the remainder of the week so crews can expect some more fast rides with an easier time of it ride back upwind. The regatta finishes on Saturday.

The Wild Oats XI crew are sailing the smaller Reichel Pugh 66, which is also owned by the Oatley family, while the supermaxi, Wild Oats XI - one of the most accomplished race boats in the world, gets more hull surgery and other alterations.

"She's having another cut and tuck" is how Richards casually puts it.

"We're just changing our board configuration again, going almost the full circle. Despite all the modifications we've done over the years, the front boards have never been in the right position, from a balance perspective. So we're hoping that Reichel Pugh can get it right, and we wind up with a nice, efficient upwind foil package."

The Queen of Australian offshore racing is also on a weight loss program.

"It's a big gain for us," adds Richard. We're going to be about 400kg lighter, which is going to be a big bonus. We've got new sails coming - they're going to be new-generation after some successful testing in the mainsail department.

"Then it will be up to us to sail the best we can."

The Australian supermaxi fleet is the envy of the rest of the sailing world - particularly with owners prepared to spend to keep the boats in top racing trim, and not just sailed out for the rest of their racing days.

Black Jack, another of the Australian supermaxi fleet, is also in the shed for major hull surgery.

Richard says their modifications are not a response to their Queensland rival.

"We've always been trying to improve the boat. And we've had a weakness upwind - especially against them. We're trying to rectify that."

"The Black Jack modifications are really exciting. It will be interesting to see what they have done. No-one has seen the boat - its all been done very secretively - which is cool - as everyone whips themselves into a bit of a frenzy thinking about what they have done!" he chuckles.

"It will be very interesting."

"We all have totally different thoughts as to how the boats should be sailed. They have a very different direction to us. And we're different to everyone - so quite whether that is good or bad - I'm not quite sure."

"We're really excited by the changes to our boat," he says, throwing into the conversation that there's also rig work planned, along with a big weight reduction everywhere. "We're going to sail with fewer people and fewer sails, and just push the envelope and see what happens."

Asked if the modifications are aimed at getting the Sydney Hobart race record back, Richards is a little coy.

"We'll see - one day!" is the short response.

"Gotta share it around!" he laughs.

Sure, Mark.

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