What can the Sydney to Hobart race, that iconic duel of racing yachts down Australia's east coast held every Boxing Day since 1945, tell us about the possible improvements yet to be wrenched from wind power?
This is a race where money is a minor object and where owners will take large risks to be the first over the line. It combines disdain for cost with leading edge technology so has to be at one of the pinnacles of windpower.
Optimists claim that renewable energy will be much cheaper than fossil-fueled energy at some stage in the future because of projected technological improvements. This is a flawed argument for two reasons. It assumes that fossil-fueled power won't also experience technological improvements, and that the limits of physics are almost infinitely accommodating.
The history of the race suggests that we are likely to be close to the limits of windpower. Sailing ships and windmills, basically the same thing, are one of our oldest forms of energy generation, having been used continuously for thousands of years, right up until the present. So we are dealing with a relatively mature technology.
However, as the graph of the winning times over the history of the race shows, even very robust technology can be transformed with modern materials and know-how.
There are three different phases in the evolution of the race.
When it first started in 1945 it was more or less a bit of fun amongst a few mates. The line honours time of 6 days, 14 hours and 22 minutes didn't stand for long. Times declined fairly quickly over the next 30 years with Kialoa blitzing it in 1975 with a time of 2 days, 14 hours, 36 minutes and 56 seconds, a 60.46% increase in efficiency over the first result.
This efficiency gain is probably overstated, because the race is highly dependant on the weather. So the 1948 result of Morna of 4 days, 5 hours, 1 minute and 21 seconds is probably a better comparison, producing an efficiency gain of 38.02%.
Kialoa is more or less the start of the second phase which lasts up until 1998. This sees a slightly higher level of competition, with the results for the winner sitting within a narrower channel than the first phase.
Nokia was the winner in 1999, when she sets a new race record of 1 day, 19 hours, 48 minutes and 2 seconds, an efficiency gain of 30.05%. This is the beginning of the modern era, which sees a narrowing in the range between fastest times, but what looks to be a floor under them.
The current record is a further improvement of 24.07% on the 1999 record, but this would appear to be weather rather than technology. As the ABC reports:
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