Rivals set to chase Comanche as top three tipped for tight finish

A frantic scramble up the Derwent River is expected to decide this year’s Sydney To Hobart with Wild Oats XI and Black Jack hoping for light conditions in the final stretch to give them the best chance of overhauling race favourite LDV Comanche.

Competitors will likely face a steady easterly breeze when they emerge from the Sydney Heads on Tuesday, with a northeasterly of up to 25 knots expected to help the fleet down the coast for most of Wednesday.

That will heavily favour race favourite LDV Comanche, but Wild Oats XI and Black Jack are poised to eyeball each other all the way down the coast before a final dash across the Bass Strait and around Tasman Island.

LDV Comanche will aim to arrive at the Derwent while the tide is going in to shore, or they could face a similar situation to what new owner Jim Cooney was confronted with last year aboard Maserati – sitting motionless in the river with the finish line in sight, unable to make progress against the tide without any breeze.

Should that happen, Wild Oats XI and Black Jack might just be poised to pounce.

“The Derwent is looking like it’s going to be very, very tricky when we get there so we’ll see what happens,” Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards said.

“It’s been two years since we’ve sailed against Comanche and the guys on the boat have done a lot of miles. I guarantee you that Comanche is going a hell of a lot faster than she was two years ago, even in the lighter conditions.

“I really have no idea how we’re going to go against her. We’re going a lot faster than we were two years ago as well, we’ve done a lot of modifications, we’ve learned a lot about the modifications we’ve done.”

Black Jack last contested this race in 2009, claiming line honours as Alfa Romeo.

They landed an early blow against Wild Oats XI two weeks back in claiming the annual Big Boat challenge, but with such a similar hull shape to their big rival, there’s every chance the two yachts will be almost side by side the whole way down to Hobart.

Richards and Black Jack skipper Mark Bradford have been mates for 25 years, and their two boats have prepared in very similar fashion for this year’s Sydney to Hobart, contesting the same lead-up races and occasionally training alongside each other on Sydney Harbour.

Bradford also felt Comanche was the boat to beat.

“The geometry that Comanche has on offer, it’s a hundred-footer with the most amount of muscle,” Bradford said.

“Comanche are going to be strong when it’s windy, when it’s 25 knots. We need to just stay in the same patch of water as all of them but don’t be surprised if you see Comanche get out to 30-odd miles three-quarters of the way through.

“Like everything in life there’s no free lunch here and the other end of the scale, through the transitions, she’s going to be particularly weak.

“It looks like we’re going to get around Tasmania and Tasman Light in the dark and that generally means it’s going to be light air. In a transition zone, we’ve hedged our whole campaign on transitions so we want to be as strong when the wind stops.”

Richards and Bradford met 25 years ago when they used to race dinghies and etchells, and have maintained a close friendship despite constantly pitting their wits against each other in the water.

“Everyone’s got to recognise and pay tribute to – and Bob Oatley was a big driver of this – [the way] that [Wild Oats XI’s] eight wins have brought all these people here, those eight wins have made this race something that people want to be a part of. We all owe them a great amount of respect for what they’ve done for the sport.

“Conversely in the Aussie way, and we’re kind of a part of this, everyone says to us go and knock them off because we’re sick of hearing about them. Everyone’s mission here is to try and just do it the great old-fashioned way and knock down the tall poppy.

“It’s like any sport,” Richards said.

“On the land it’s all good, we’re all good mates and on the water we’re the biggest of enemies. That’s what it’s all about.”