SYDNEY: The Sydney to Hobart yacht race got off to a controversial start yesterday with fancied supermaxi Wild Thing ruled out at the last minute due to paperwork issues.
Race favorite Wild Oats XI — tipped for a sixth line honors win and hoping to clock a new race record — led the 76-vessel fleet out of Sydney Harbor in record time and took a commanding lead early boosted by a strong southerly wind.
But the start of the annual 628-nautical mile bluewater classic was overshadowed by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA)’s decision to bar Grant Wharington’s 100-footer Wild Thing due to paperwork problems.
The 2003 line honors winner was among the top three race favorites but officials scratched it just three hours before the start citing incomplete documentation of major modifications extending the vessel to 100 feet.
It would have been Wharington’s 25th Sydney to Hobart and the veteran skipper said he had been “blindsided” and was “dumbfounded” at the decision.
“We are absolutely devastated to be told at the 11th hour that we are unable to race to Hobart,” a furious Wharington told reporters.
“We’re a bit stuck for words as to why it happened, the situation, we provided the documentation — I’ve got it in my hand.” Wharington said he had been granted approval to race on Wednesday and had received no indication in the hours before the decision that there was a problem.
He attended the final pre-race briefing Wednesday and was doing the last run-through with his crew on board the yacht, his phone switched off, when race officials announced Wild Thing’s disqualification to the media.
“As everybody turned their phones back on, (there were) obviously hundreds of messages that it was all over the press, that we were knocked out, and we were absolutely dumbfounded,” he said, blasting it as “nonsensical” and claiming he was the victim of a conspiracy.
CYCA commodore Howard Piggott said officials had been working with Wharington for days on the documents, giving him until 10:00 a.m. on race morning to file the necessary proof that his modifications met international standards.
“However, that has not been forthcoming, and the race committee has no option but to not accept the entry of Wild Thing,” Piggott said.
“This is the final decision of the race committee that puts safety first,” he added.
Piggott said it was disappointing but insisted the CYCA had made every effort and the matter was “out of our hands.”
“I believe we just have to get on with it now and go out and yacht race,” he said.
It is not the first time the daunting annual dash down Australia’s southeast coast has been dogged by controversy — as recently as last year there was an official jury protest accusing line honors winner Investec Loyal of misconduct.
Catastrophic weather during the 1998 edition sank five yachts and claimed six lives.
Wild Oats XI — piped in the final stages by Loyal in 2011 — is the hot favorite to take line honors for a sixth time and favorable winds may see its record of one day, 18 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds set in 2005 tumble.
It made an impressive start, taking a one-minute, 35-second lead as it steamed out of the harbor under 20-knot gusts, ahead of fellow maxis Loyal, Black Jack, Loki and Lahana.
Conditions favor the larger boats, with a 60+ footer expected to be first over the line and the coveted line and handicap honors double on the cards for the first time since 2005, when Wild Oats made it a triple with a new race record.
Handicap honors take into account each boat’s dimensions, including sail area, whether it has a canting or fixed keel and age.