The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2012 will always have its favorites and underdogs. But for Grant Wharington, whose boat ‘Wild Thing’ is considered a dark horse in the Boxing Day race, the true winner will not be determined not on the betting table but in the volatile seas.
At about $1.50, the bookies are ranking Wild Oats XI firm line honours favourite in this 2012 Rolex Sydney Hobart; then they have Ragamuffin-Loyal at $3.25 and Lahana at $10 – and finally you get to Grant (Wharo) Wharington’s Wild Thing, at $13.
Pretty generous odds considering the punters, the bookies, Wild Thing’s rivals, not even Wharington himself knows just how fast his new-look super maxi is.
The black hulled 100 footer truly is the dark horse in the dash to Hobart.
Since last year, there have been massive changes to Wild Thing, including a completely new back end. The last nine and a half metres of the formerly 98 foot (30 metre) super maxi have been chopped off and a new 10 metre stern glued on, bringing the hull length up to 100 feet and widening the stern so that the sides now run parallel from the widest point new the mast.
A new underwater shape, plus the crew can now get their weight right aft when the big boat is planing on a broad reach. There is also all new titanium standing rigging and a completely new wardrobe of sails.
'There’s not much of the original boat now,' Wharington says. 'We’ve kept the 6.8 metre deep keel we put on in 2009 (originally Wild Thing’s keel was a modest 4.8 metres, lengthened to 5.2 in 2005). She’s better now than when she was brand new; when she won line honours in 2003.'
Of course her rivals are getting faster too. Each winter, yachties tinker with their boats. It fills in those short, windless winter days and super maxi owners have the resources to tinker more than most.
Wild Oats XI has publicly revealed her new for’ard retractable centreboard and keel winglets, to improve her light wind performance, as will her massive new lightweight Code Zero. The team reckon if they had averaged a gain of just one second a mile last year they would have been in Hobart 11 minutes earlier. The changes have been made to find seconds, minutes – possibly even hours. Nothing like the performance impact Wharington will be looking for from the modifications he has made to Wild Thing.
The thing is, though, no-one knows how big an impact.
The final pieces for the new rigging arrived from Sri Lanka while Wild Thing was on her way down to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia from Queensland; the brand new main arrived in Sydney from Los Angeles a day after the yacht.
None were in time for the SOLAS Big Boat Challenge, the only opportunity Wharington or his opponents might have had to compare performances before the Boxing Day start. Wild Thing is the Great Unknown, much more so than Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin-Loyal, of the 2012 Rolex Sydney Hobart.
Wharington’s boat is now 4 tonnes lighter than her rivals. Her underwater shape is closer, now, to Wild Oats XI’s. Could she be as fast?
It’s the sort of cat-among-the-pigeons scenario that no doubt appeals to the brash young (for a super maxi owner) Wharington. A tradie by background (a carpenter), ex Victorian Wharo is a rough diamond in the smooth world of big time yachting.
You would never mistake this straight talking, bit-of-a-larrikin charmer for a merchant banker or lawyer. He gets his hands filthy on Wild Thing. There isn’t a bolt or hydraulic valve on the boat he doesn’t know personally.
Wharo seems to have worked out long ago that he will be dead a long time. Life is an adventure, not a career – and he loves flat out fast boats. His first Wild Thing, 25 years ago was widely seen as an affront to the more staid racing yachts of the time. Not for nothing did he call her Wild Thing.
'When we started in the Kenwood Cup in 1990, we were the mavericks,' he says with a grin. 'Those were the IOR days,' he says, when speeds of 10 knots, even on a maxi, were something to talk about.
Sports journalists love him. Articulate, accessible; he’s always good for a quote and most years lobs at least one bombshell. He championed canting keels on big boats early on, and paid the price in 2004 of pushing the boundaries when the boat capsized, keel-less in Bass Strait.
Traditionalists were horrified when he opted for electric winches on a racing boat. 'Initially it was a cost thing,' he explains. 'Electric winches were $300,000 cheaper than conventional pedestal winches. Then we realised these small electric motors replaced 10 coffee grinders cluttering up the deck; it was practically a no-brainer.'
Not surprisingly Wharington feels vindicated. The IOR tortoises have given way to the exhilarating hares of Loki and the TP52s. To cant or not to cant, is the question for those chasing a handicap win, but no question at all for the line honours contenders where speed, not rating is king.
Electric winches are the rule on the big boats. And so, for that matter, are PR advisers feeding the media. 'If you look at UBS Wild Thing, my original Melbourne Osaka boat 25 years ago, she is still immaculate and looks remarkably similar to today’s TP52s,' he offers.
Wharington believes that tinkering at the edges, making existing boats go faster, is the immediate future for the top end of the fleet. 'These are so expensive to build no-one is going to build a new one, you need to tweak what you’ve got,' he explains.
'The next big speed advance will be in saving weight, including crew weight,' he says.
Electric winches did away with a lot of hefty prop forwards on the coffee grinders, and furling sails have culled a few more gorillas. 'You don’t need so many people with furling sails. We’re thinking we might try a furling mainsail next year, and if it works, we might use it to go to Hobart.'
Though he will sail with a full crew of 18 this year, he thinks less crew, and crew weight will be the future. He has six women in the crew this year, and even amongst the men, no real monsters.
Wild Thing has taken a rating hit with all the changes. The emphasis is very much on getting there first, but of course, first she has to get there at all. After the high of the 2003 line honours win, it has been a wild ride for everyone.
Capsizes, last minute scrambling for Alfa Romeo’s spare mast from the south of France in 2009, limping into Hobart with the top mast section dangling high above the deck in 2007 and retiring after suffering sail damage early in last year’s race.
There is still a huge amount of work to do between now and Boxing Day, but Wharo seems to feed off high drama, impending deadlines, even disaster. 'If you’re going to step off the back of a boat into a life raft in Bass Strait, do it with six helicopters and an 80 foot police launch hovering around you,' he is able to joke about 2004.
Some years you win, some you lose.
In modern sport, even the champion teams like the All Blacks, Manchester United, Geelong, the Melbourne Storm, like to know everything there is to know about their opponents, and then some. There is nothing as irritating as a long-odds ambush.
Wild Oats XI and Ragamuffin/Loyal deserve their short odds, but they will have to wait until the first afternoon, as they storm past Wollongong and Jervis Bay towards Green Cape, before they know whether the bookies have got it right about Wharo.