2nd November 2016
The 72nd edition of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race is just 8 weeks away and Australia's first family of yacht racing has their sights firmly set on bringing home a win. Robert Oatley and his family are a household name in Australia and their yacht Wild Oats XI is the unprecedented eight-time winner of the famously gruelling Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. However this year will be the first year the Oatley family have undertaken the famous race without their beloved patriarch after Bob Oatley passed away in January of this year.
The most celebrated boat in Australia, Wild Oats has faced some stiff competition in the last few years. Netscape founder Jim Clark proved a major contender in 2014 with his high-tech mega yacht Comanche. Once considered state-of-the-art, Wild Oats barely managed to edge our Comanche. It was time for a change. The Oatley's gave a radical makeover to Wild Oats, cutting off 7 feet from the back and 30 feet off the front. They were then able to add 37 feet to the front, in effect moving the mast and keel back 2m. This increased the boat's sail area by 12%, effectively like 'turbocharging' Wild Oats.
The radical makeover was debuted on Boxing Day at last year's annual Sydney Hobart race, but success was not to be. Race experts deemed conditions to be some of the worst in memory. Sailor and author of Fatal Storm, the book detailing the deadly 1998 race in which six sailors died and a dozen boats were abandoned or sank, Rob Mundle warned that conditions could be treacherous. His premonitions weren't wrong.
As Australia's seminal boating event, owners and executives popped champagne as spectators cheered from across the bay. Scores of multi-million dollar yachts skipped through the churning waves of Sydney Harbour headed for Hobart. By nightfall, storms battered the boats and many limped home, including Comanche and Wild Oats. Able to make daring repairs while at sea, Comanche managed to hold on and win the race. Wild Oats was not so lucky. The yacht skulked into dock without having tested its new speed profile. Though the crew was dejected, they received a champion's welcome all the same.
Preparations for the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race can run year-round and many only ever compete in the perilous race once. Yet the Oatley family attempt the course year after year and this year, Sandy Oatley is at the helm of the family's empire. The son of Robert, Sandy took over from his father as CEO in 2001, overseeing 1,500 staff as well as Robert Oatley Vineyards and Hamilton Island Resort, one of the largest privately-owned island resorts in the world. As the Wild Oats crew make the final preparations for the Boxing Day race, their efforts are tinged with sadness. For the first time in 50 years, Robert isn't involved.
His death in January was the end of an era for his family, friends and indeed the entire country. Managing director of real estate firm Ray White Hotels Tony Bargwanna says "Robert Oatley was salt of the earth. What he did for Hamilton Island, the area, for yachting and for racing was truly beyond belief." For Sandy, it would seem his father left behind some enormous shoes to fill, but he has no intentions of even trying to fill them. "Boats have two steering wheels, one on each side," he says, slipping into sailor jargon. "Dad has always had one, and I've got the other one."