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The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race Has a Boat-Size Absence

When the hundred-foot Maxi yachts hit the starting line for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, one absence will loom as a powerful presence.

There will be no Wild Oats XI, and Wild Oats XI is more than a boat.

Speculation is inevitable when a crowd favorite is missing. The report from the boat’s skipper, Mark Richards, is straightforward, but it won’t put an end to wondering. Of the boat and its owners, Richards said: “We had a structural failure in the bow and are having that addressed. The Oatley family are re-evaluating how to progress forward in our sport and they have just decided to have a break this year while they work it out.”

That resonates because in this race, Wild Oats XI has taken line honors (first boat to cross the finish line) nine times, set records three times and, beyond that, won the hearts of Australians.

“Kids 6, 7, 8 years old know the name,” Richards said.

No one dares use the past tense in speaking of Wild Oats XI, but questions arise when a boat that is synonymous with the Sydney Hobart, and that has been rush-repaired in the past to make a race, is absent.

Last year, the boat finished fourth at the Sydney Hobart after a sail ripped underway. It was in August of this year during a race in Australia’s Whitsunday Islands that the hull failure occurred.

Bob Oatley seated on Wild Oats XI in 2014 with Mark Richards, its skipper. Oatley, who commissioned the boat, died in 2016.Credit…Steve Christo/Corbis, via Getty Images

In 2005, Bob Oatley commissioned the build of Wild Oats XI and set the standard — the boat swept all honors in its first Sydney Hobart race, only two weeks after launch. The boat would win line honors seven more times before Oatley’s death in 2016. His son Sandy, also passionate about sailing, carried on.

“I’d love to get one more crack,” Richards said. “I guess we’ll know more next year.”

Steve Quigley got his first crack as a crewman in 2012 and felt “daunted” joining the famously accomplished crew. Then, “We were first over the finish line, we set another course record, and we won our division on handicap,” he said. “I should have retired from racing then and there, but it wasn’t until I went walking around Hobart in my team shirt, with strangers asking for autographs, that I understood that Wild Oats XI had become the people’s boat.”

What next? Richards said, “The boat is still very capable.”

Quigley, a naval architect, was part of a team responsible for a bold 2015 redesign that bought the boat some time. In Quigley’s recollection, “I was the one in the meeting who had to tell Bob, ‘You may have the fastest Maxi in the world, but if you want to keep it that way, let’s chop it in half,’” he said.

Then they chopped it twice.

To respect the 100-foot maximum limit for the Sydney Hobart race, length was removed from the stern and added in a new bow section that accommodated bigger sails. Wild Oats XI.2 proved effective across the wind range, and success continued as the boat won line honors again in 2018.

Imagining a 2024 race, Quigley said, “Given the right combination of wind strength and direction, we could find a window to win, but the newer boats have a wider window.”

Design DNA in 2023 is different from 2005. Boats are now wider, yielding stability to carry taller masts and more sail. The maximum width of Wild Oats XI, 17 feet, is 45 percent less than LawConnect, winner of the most recent lead-up regatta series and yet not the newest or widest.

Sandy Oatley did not respond to a request for comment. More than one member of his crew spoke of the team as a “family,” so any decision is charged with emotion: Do you throw money at an unlikely Wild Oats XI.3, or would it satisfy if the boat slipped into the role of sentimental favorite and long shot?

The citizens of Hobart cheer for all, but it doesn’t hurt to arrive on Wild Oats XI. Andrew Henderson, part of the crew since 2005 and a 25-race veteran, said: “Anyone who can get a boat to Hobart deserves respect. The town offers the warmest reception in Australia. All of us understand how special that is.”

This year, however, after many years racing, he said, “I’m spending Christmas with the kids.”

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