By GREG WHITE
JUST after 7.30am yesterday a small crowd gathering on Beacon Hill spied a tiny, black speck on the southern horizon.
As word began to spread around the Jetty precinct spectators headed for vantage points on the southern breakwater and Muttonbird Island for a first glimpse at the giant vessel that's captured so much national attention these past three weeks, and was now sailing into history.
Through the gloom and misty rain to the east of Smokey Cape, the shape of a sail and boat began to form and by 9.46am, the master and crew had navigated Wild Oats XI safely into port taking line honours in the 26th Pittwater to Coffs Harbour Yacht Race.
In a final touch of theatre, the 30-metre super-maxi caught a last wave that surfed her through the entrance.
"Wasn't that entry something," owner Bob Oatley said proudly.
"It was like coming through the waves in a surf boat."
Still stoic and somewhat stunned at the enormous achievement of being first to win the Sydney-Hobart and Pittwater to Coffs Harbour races back-to-back, Oatley needed confirmation from skipper Mark Richards how many times he'd won the northern classic.
"Four times, boss," Richards shot back.
"It's been a heck of a challenge and a magnificent effort from all the crew over the last few weeks."
Wild Oats XI covered the 226 nautical miles in provisional time of 21 hours 46 minutes 49 seconds, well outside the record time set by 'stablemate' Wild Oats X in 2003, but fast enough to leave Wild Joe stranded 30 nautical miles in her wake as she took the siren.
"The strongest winds got up to around 18 knots," Richards said.
"A race record was always out of the question but we did what we set out to do."
Oatley had originally been listed to crew on the northern run but had given up his place at the last moment.
"Sandy, my son, came in my place and I flew up this morning," he said.
"I would have been in the way as we had 25 on board.
"We could have made up two rugby or cricket teams and had a game."
And it was Sandy Oatley who revealed a moment of severe tension as Wild Oats XI neared the marina.
"We hit sand near the finish line and were momentarily grounded," he said. "The boys keeled her over to get her off the bank and that's the reason why the boat is heading straight back to Sydney.
"Otherwise, when the tide drops away she'll be stuck here."
Up close and personal, Wild Oats XI is much more impressive that she looks when her picture is in the papers or when she fills television screens.
But within hours, she was gone. As morning turned to afternoon a half-crew was steering her back to the city.
But she leaves behind a unique mark in Australian maritime and sporting history.