At 1pm on Boxing Day, as lunch is taken at the MCG, the gun will fire to signal the start of the 69th Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.
This year 94 yachts are registered for the 628 nautical mile blue water classic, including the 12 yachts competing in the Clipper Round the World Race.
First run in 1945 as a race for friends down the east coast to Hobart, this annual event is now regarded as one of ocean racing’s premier events, alongside races like the Fastnet.
Every year the race attracts sailors and crews from all over the world, and this year is no exception with the first ever entrant from Cyprus – Zefiro, the Farr 100 Supermaxi.
To most casual viewers the event is just for rich boys with their expensive toys and rock star crew.
While that may be true for the Supermaxis at the front of the fleet, the fact is the majority of competitors are everyday men and women who indulge their passion for sailing by crewing on yachts going south for the “Quiet Little Drink”.
This year is even more remarkable, as with the inclusion of the Clippers we have amateur sailors who have paid to be part of a round-the-world sailing experience.
Once again the race commences with a staggered start just off Nielson Park in Sydney Harbour, utilising two separate start lines, 0.2 nautical miles apart.
The staggered start allows the larger, fastest yachts (60 to 100 feet in length) a clear run to the heads, unimpeded by the smaller, slower yachts.
Each start line has its own distinct rounding buoy near the heads to even out the total distance travelled, just like the stagger on the running track.
Two major trophies will be up for grabs – The John Illingworth Trophy for the line honours winner and the Tattersall’s Cup for the overall winner on handicap or, in sailing parlance, corrected time.
For obvious reasons the majority of media and public interest will be on the race for line honours between the big boats, but what most sailors want to win, and the more prestigious of the two, is the Tattersall’s Cup.
The winner of this is likely to come from the smaller boats in the fleet. The handicapping system, the sailing equivalent of cricket’s Duckworth/Lewis Rule, is a complex equation taking into account the length, sail area, the age of a yacht’s design and other technical factors to (theoretically) give all contestants a chance of winning overall.
So which are the boats to look out for?
Last year Wild Oats XI had it all sewn up soon after leaving the heads. This year she is in for a real challenge all the way to Hobart, with the Supermaxis Perpetual Loyal, Ragamuffin 100 and Wild Thing all capable of giving her a close race.
I think the real threat will be coming from two or three of the slightly smaller Maxi yachts in Beau Geste and former Volvo Ocean Race contenders Giacomo and Black Jack.
In ocean racing all does not always go to plan as nature may often have a say in the result. Adverse conditions can lead to equipment failure, sail, and rigging or even hull damage, whilst an errant sunfish, whale or submerged shipping container can rip the keel of a yacht.
If any misfortune strikes the favourites, it may open the door for some of the Clipper fleet.
The pre-race favourite would have to be Wild Oats XI. She has taken line honours every year since 2005, with the exception of 2009 and 2011.
In 2009, her sister yacht – the New Zealand Supermaxi Alfa Romeo II beat her by a couple of hours after taking advantage of a breeze that missed the rest of the fleet on the first morning.
Then in 2011 she was overtaken by Loyal early on the last morning, taking advantage of favourable wind conditions.
Wild Oats XI has had substantial modifications to her undersides with horizontal foils added to aid in downwind conditions. However I am going to stick my neck out again this year and pick the ‘dark horse’ Beau Geste to take line honours.
People may remember from last year that my pick didn’t even make the start line, with Grant Wharington’s Wild Thing being barred from sailing just three hours before the race. Hopefully I will be more successful this year.
So why Beau Geste?
Rumours have been circulating about the Hong Kong registered yacht for a number of weeks, with owner/skipper Karl Kwok assembling a superstar-laden team of sailors including multiple America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race competitor Gavin Brady.
Arriving in Sydney only on Saturday night, Brady reports that they have just completed the equivalent of two Hobarts on their trip over from New Zealand, the crew and yacht being put through its paces all the way across.
Apart from having a nervous few moments after hitting a sunfish 20 minutes out from Auckland, Brady reports that all is well with the yacht including hitting speeds of 30 knots on her passage to Sydney.
The current forecast is indicating the race will start in a strong southerly, which will favour the larger yachts.
But late on day one the winds are forecast to swing into the north east at 15 to 20 knots ideal conditions for the smaller yachts and on day two there is a strong wind warning for Gabo Island.
In terms of the overall win, this is where the race could be won or lost. Some of the larger yachts in the fleet such as Wild Oats XI and Perpetual Loyal are going to have to ease off the pace as they head into Bass Strait to preserve them from too much damage, opening the door for the likes of Beau Geste, Giacomo and Black Jack to pounce.
In terms of handicap honours the timing of the arrival of a second southerly, forecast to be gale force, late on day three will determine the outcome.
If any of the main handicap contenders such as Ichi Ban, Varuna, Patrice or Midnight Rambler are ahead of the change then they should take out the Tattersall’s Cup. If not then it opens up the possibility that Giacomo or Black Sheep will take it out.
If Patrice is ahead of the change, she will take handicap honours. The real contender to Patrice will be Midnight Rambler, but being only 40 feet in length, she may not be fast enough to get ahead of the change, which will blow her chances.
Apart from those in contention for the silverware, there are a few other yachts to keep an eye on.
Perennial peoples favourite Brindabella will be there again this year. Sadly she no longer carries the C1 sail number from the Canberra Yacht Club, having been bought in 2010 by Jim Cooney of the Cruising Yacht Club.
The race within the Clipper fleet should be intriguing. This is essentially a race within a race, as the Sydney to Hobart is being used as the sixth leg of their round-the-world race.
All yachts are identical, so it is the skill of the crew, rather than who has the deepest pockets, which determines the outcome.
Keep an eye out for Henri Lloyd, which leads the Clipper event at this stage, as well as Invest Africa with the first black African ever to compete in Masibulele Liyaba, and Vicky Song, the first Chinese ever to compete on board Qingdao.
It will also be a battle for the Cook Cup on water with former England rugby sevens international Ollie Phillips on board Great Britain and Phil Waugh on Perpetual Loyal.
The fleet is larger than last year and it should be a great race again.