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How the Hobart Was Won

 AUS Christian Beck’s LawConnect hunts its prey on Tasmania’s Derwent River. Kurt Arrigo/ Rolex

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you live coverage from the finish of the 2023 Rolex Sydney Hobart Race. We now take you to Hobart, Tasmania, where two of the race’s 100-foot supermaxis are ghosting toward the finish line, with underdogs LawConnect closing in on pre-race favorite, AndooComanche.

That’s about what is heard on television stations across Australia when, after nearly 628 nautical miles, the “Great Race” is coming down to an even greater finish. After 42 hours of hard sailing, there are mere boatlengths between the 100-foot rivals of LawConnect and Andoo Comanche. As the navigator, I’m now standing behind the twin wheels of LawConnect, but I can’t see the finish marks, so I dart to leeward to see what’s under the massive masthead zero headsail that obscures our view of the finish line and half of the city of Hobart. Releasing the tablet computer that’s tethered around my neck, I point with both arms outstretched, targeting each of the two yellow inflatable marks so that our sailing master and driver, Tony Mutter, and our tactician, Chris Nicholson, can visualize the finish line. I then glance back at Andoo Comanche, which is arguably the fastest conventional monohull in the world. The big black-and-red boat with its giant prod is aimed right at our transom.

They are behind us, which is where we need them to be, and they’re losing ­momentum. I shoot a look forward again toward the finish line, and a rush of elation hits me. Wow. We are about to win Rolex Sydney Hobart Race line honors. Moments later, as the finish cannon booms, most of us on the boat are genuinely stunned, as are livestream viewers around the world. LawConnect crosses the finish line, one single, beautiful boatlength ahead of Andoo Comanche. The underdogs have done it. David topples Goliath. Rocky puts Apollo Creed to the mat. This is our Miracle on Ice, our Super Bowl and our World Series all in one. A mere 51 ­seconds is the difference.

One of the greatest ­spectacles in yachting is the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race, which has been contested for 77 years and counting. It’s relatively rare for an ocean race to field a single 100-foot supermaxi, let alone four, all gunning for line honors. This year’s race has LawConnect, Andoo Comanche, Scallywag and Wild Thing 100. There are also ­mini maxis, TP52s, and an armada of IRC-optimized race machines sailed by amateurs and pros alike, each striving to win the race’s coveted Tattersall Cup (ultimately claimed by the great sailors aboard Alive).

It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that it feels as if the entire population of the great city of Sydney turns out on Boxing Day for the start of the race. On the water, the harbor is madness. Thousands of spectator boats, helicopters and media boats add to the chaos. Plus, it’s midsummer Down Under, so the weather is normally gorgeous. Not so this year. While mostly sunny, a small, pre-race rain shower dampens the start and hints at the punishing and ­unforgiving weather to come. 

On board LawConnect, we take our starts seriously, and we have a well-earned ­reputation for being the best off the line because LawConnect owner Christian Beck loves to be first out of Sydney Heads. It’s great fun and great publicity for our sponsor. In contrast to the yelling and cursing that’s audible from some of our competitors in the live broadcasts, LawConnect’s afterguard has a low-key running dialogue. It’s an all-business and data-driven sort of conversation. There’s no onboard drama made for TV, and it’s ruthlessly effective. Nicholson, an Olympian and two-time Australian Yachtsman of the Year, is a tactical genius, and I’m confident that Mutter, a round-the-world legend, can drive this 100-footer through a 30-foot hole.

In preparing for the race, we’ve spent a lot of time on conference calls dissecting the start and analyzing archival race footage, which helps me build a Sydney Harbor starting model so that I can quickly and effectively answer any questions Nicholson might ask when the battle begins. This year’s start is what I’d term a “SailGP reaching start,” which plays right to Nicholson’s strength as a SailGP coach. We set up early in a strong position on starboard tack, patiently killing time to the boat end of the line, and then hit the afterburners by deploying the massive masthead zero, which slingshots us across the line with pace. Andoo Comanche and the others are in our wake, and we comfortably lead the drag race out to the first turning mark.

The early minutes of this race are always extra special to me, especially knowing that my family is in one of the team RIBs following us as we lead out past the Heads. My daughters once told me that sharing in the start was one of the most exciting moments of their lives. This year, we unintentionally make it extra exciting for ­everyone when our furling rope breaks. We can’t roll up the massive zero, which means we can’t tack, but our quick-thinking team instead executes a jibe right at the exclusion zone. Carlos Hernandez Robayna and Simbad Quiroga acrobatically lead the rigging of a backup, and off we go, securing the lead again as we fight through the choppy, light-air conditions.

 AUS LawConnect’s crew knew that every minute saved would determine the outcome. Andrea ­Francolini/ Rolex

In the pre-race ­coverage ­leading up to the start, the media has repeatedly reminded the team that it is “three times the bridesmaid.” It also mercilessly points out that LawConnect has yet to beat Andoo Comanche to Hobart, and that the other ­supermaxi juggernauts of Scallywag and Wild Thing 100 have undergone dramatic optimizations for the race. Regardless, we know from our pre-race forecast that there are a number of tricky sections of the racecourse where we might have the opportunity to remain tight with Comanche, the odds-on favorite. I remember going into the race saying, “The messier the forecast, the better.”

Andoo Comanche is an exceptionally well-sailed boat by top professionals, and is a faster boat than LawConnect in almost all conditions. Mutter, who knows both boats better than anyone, points out that Comanche had a decade’s worth of newer technology embedded in it when it was first built in 2014, and it is literally 4 tons lighter. If we are close, even or ahead, we know that we are in good shape, knowing that the Derwent River at the finish could give us a shot.

In the run-up to the race, we had spent a lot of time with our weather team and performance analysts, so before leaving the dock, we had an excellent idea of what to expect and a great game plan. This is important because we end up seeing wind from 3 knots to almost 40 knots, from every direction. It is also important that we know our polars and which sails to put up in every condition. The boat is sailing better than ever because of the optimization programs and the talented crew. But we’ve also been leveraging data analytics to squeeze as much performance as ­possible out of the boat.

After racing down Australia’s east coast and entering the notorious Bass Strait, our J-Zero headsail is the only casualty, shredded when the wind suddenly doubles to nearly 40 knots and shifts 180 degrees. Otherwise, we escape the lightning-filled and angry weather, and enjoy a hard and fast ride to Tasman Island, where the weather models and observations indicate that the breeze will shift massively yet again, this time from a downwind northeasterly to an upwind southwesterly, with a windless zone somewhere in between. Here we have our sights locked on Andoo Comanche and jump them by cutting the corner on a jibe.

When we sail into the light patch between the two different breezes, our trimmers smoothly shift gears, and suddenly Andoo Comanche is alongside us once again in this epic seesaw battle. Their 13-nautical-mile lead has evaporated. Now it’s a match race, but with one puff, they are faster again and slingshot ahead.

There’s not a whiff of despair on our boat though. We know that these final miles on the Derwent River are expected to be fickle, and this year we have the extra advantage of daylight. Oftentimes, the supermaxis reach the Derwent on the second night of the race, when it’s impossible to see the light puffs in the dark.

Just after passing John Garrow Light, we hunt down Comanche again for what is the 10th or so time in this marathon game of cat-and-mouse. We’re in a dead heat with only about 2 miles to work with. We want this win badly, more than anything. We are hungry, but they are too, and it’s in these moments where the subtleties of these giant programs reveal themselves. 

LawConnect’s crew work shines as we roll-jibe our 100-footer like a dinghy. Mutter, who is easily one of the best drivers and yachtsmen in the world, works the canting keel and the turning rate through the jibes to perfection, while trimmers Brad Jackson and Scott Beavis on the main and Lucas Chapman, Alex Gough, and Charlie Wyatt on the front sails are fully synchronized with Mutter’s turns. In the pit, Rodney Daniel, Dylan Clarke, and Mustafa Ingham keep the maneuvers sharp and orchestrated.

Our crew boss, Mitch White, ensures that everyone on the boat is all on the same page—from our experienced Spanish bow team to the ride-along LawConnect employees who won the office raffle to our water-ballast engineer Ryan Phillips and to our afterguard at the back of the boat.

Because all of our ­trimmers are also amazing drivers, the choreography is flawless. Everyone moves in sync, without the usual jerky starts and stops of maneuvers. But my teammates are far more than light-air specialists. Over each of the more than 600 nautical miles of this race, the afterguard has never once second-guessed a risky or complicated maneuver. They simply deliver whatever is asked of them.

The people are what make LawConnect a special team. And there are a couple in particular who make the program as competitive as it is. There’s Ty Oxley, our boat captain, a jack-of-all trades and master of all: electronics, rig loads, water-ballast systems, and sails. Oxley is also a gifted sailor, which is absolutely critical because LawConnect, a Juan K 100-footer first launched in 2008 as Speedboat, is a complicated boat and demands someone with Oxley’s skillsets. He also implemented key upgrades for this boat, including what might be the largest bowsprit on the planet, which extends more than 20 feet beyond the forestay pin.

Most importantly, there’s LawConnect’s owner, Christian Beck. He’s a passionate sailor and a tremendously charismatic individual. We are fortunate that he hired great leaders for the program in Oxley, Mutter and Nicholson. He doesn’t ­micromanage, and he truly brings out the best in the entire team. Without fail, every time he saw me during the race, he always asked the most important question: “Lewy, where is Comanche?”

He doesn’t need to ask the question again as we approach the river. We know exactly where they are, and we’re on the hunt. Andoo Comanche is parked in the expected windless zone ahead, and the breeze is stacking up along the Western shore of the Derwent. Nicholson asks me whether we can continue into the shallows to squeeze the most out of the breeze rather than having to jibe into the lighter air.

I spent a lot of time before the race analyzing the course’s depth constraints. Most people don’t realize how deep the keels are on these supermaxis. In 21 feet of water, LawConnect would be aground, and those who are more willing to push the depth envelope, especially when factoring in heel and canting keels (which can temporarily reduce draft), have more tactical options in the “shallows.” So, when Nicholson asks about the depth, I consult the chart and see my race notes drawn into Expedition. I’ve done my homework, and I know that tiptoeing along the shore in better pressure is possible. At one point, our resident Tasmanian (“Chaz from Taz”) on board nervously asks, “Hey Lewy, you see the rocks just over there?”

With confidence, I reply, “Yep, I got it.” And soon after a series of perfect maneuvers, a master class in light-wind tactical sailing, and a bit of luck, we can all say, “LawConnect wins the John H. Illingworth Challenge Cup for Line Honors in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.”

The post How the Hobart Was Won appeared first on Sailing World.