An apparently offhand question posed yesterday in a forum post on an obscure American sailing website could well snowball into a huge controversy that could engulf some of the most respected Australian names in the sport. Responding to the impressive appearance of the recently rebuilt maxi-yacht Wild Oats XI, “Duncan” wrote:

So oats is very sexy and all. Does anyone have a clear definition of Hull length vs LOA. I can’t find any clear definition of Hull vs bowsprit in the IRC rules.”

That one short post makes public a potentially explosive issue that so far has been kept hidden by the yachting authorities. Wild Oats XI is the most successful ocean racing yacht in history. Built to the international maximum length of 100 feet (30.48 metres), it has won eight Sydney-Hobart races and recently won the 2400-mile Trans Pacific race. It is the plaything of wine squillionaires Bob and Sandy Oatley, and they have spent countless dollars on constant modifications to keep it at the front of the fleet. The head of the Oatley development team, Ian Murray, and the yacht’s skipper, Mark Richards, are both sailing legends.

But when the boat emerged last month from the builder’s shed after yet another rebuild, WOXI had a new profile. Instead of the normal straight or “plumb” bow, it now has a curved top section at the front of the hull to support the bowsprit (a spar that extends beyond the bow from which the spinnakers are set). Some waterfront experts who believe they know the rules of how yachts are measured were quick to pose the question: where does this new hull actually start? If the bowsprit is now permanently joined to the bow, doesn’t that make it part of the hull itself?

That question is dynamite because 100 feet is the absolute maximum length overall (LOA) a yacht can be to remain eligible for the Sydney-Hobart Race. If the new extended bow on Wild Oats XI is found to be part of the hull, then the yacht is much longer than 100 feet and can not be accepted as an entry in the race, which starts on December 26. Wild Oats XI’s media manager answered our query about the length of WOXI quickly, saying that the 100 feet rule applies to the “waterline” length of the boat, not including the extra length of the bowsprit. He emphasised the experience of the team that has developed the yacht. There’s only one mention of waterline lengths in the Sydney to Hobart Notice of Race, and it refers to a minimum waterline length, while the maximum is measured as length overall. Could they have got it wrong? That’s a story that would move very swiftly from the sports section to the front page.

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Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey