If you went up to someone random on the street and asked them what they thought Australia’s top five most successful sports were, they would not mention sailing.
Wild Oats XI stands on the threshold of a record-equalling seventh Sydney to Hobart line honours win, but could have her bid for history foiled by a rival whose navigator has been plotting for two months.
With at least three other top-notch supermaxis in the 94-boat fleet, Wild Oats XI faces one of the stiffest challenges in her fabled history.
First-time Hobart competitor Perpetual LOYAL is a formidable new rival, while perennial threats Ragamuffin 100 and Wild Thing , which took line honours in 2011 and 2003 respectively under different names, are back again.
Morna/Kurrewa IV won line honours seven times between 1946 and 1960, while Wild Oats XI has claimed that title six times in just eight years.
“It’s something I try not to think about,” Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards told AAP when asked about potentially equalling the record.
“It’s exciting. It’s part of history, just looming there.
“But this is going to be a very, very tricky race, one that any one of five of these boats could win.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” added Richards, whose boat now boasts a hydrofoil-type wing.
A victory on handicap would allow Wild Oats XI to also equal the race record of most overall wins, currently shared by Freya and Love & War, with three each.
The fleet is bracing for a bumpy first few hours under southerly winds.
With uncertainty over the changing weather forecasts in the lead-up, Perpetual LOYAL owner and skipper Anthony Bell is convinced the navigators will have a big part to play in the outcome.
He has one of the best in the business in American Stan Honey, who masterminded the 2011 line honours win of Bell’s previous boat Investec LOYAL, now called Ragamuffin 100.
“Stan has been emailing and working on this for the last two months,” Bell told AAP.
“Since he got here, he’s been sitting in the back of the boat, 12 hours a day.”
London Olympics gold medallist Tom Slingsby is another key component of Bell’s strategy team.
As usual, Bell’s boat includes a number of celebrities, with acclaimed chef Guillaume Brahimi and Sydney’s recently retired dual AFL-premiership winner Jude Bolton among those sailing south.
Richards felt his boat’s 2012 race record of one day 18 hours 23 minutes 12 seconds was unlikely to be challenged unless the favourable north-easters blow for longer than forecast.
He said the second part of the race would be the toughest, when the forecast southerly front is expected with winds of up to gale force possible.
Richards feels his boat is now far better equipped to handle the forecast period of lighter air compared to when it faltered two years ago.
Aside from Perpetual LOYAL, Richards rates Ragamuffin 100 and new 80-foot Hong Kong boat Beau Geste among the other line honours contenders.
Two Volvo 70s, Black Jack and Giacomo, are also expected to perform well.
Ragamuffin 100’s Syd Fischer will at 86 become the equal oldest skipper of a Sydney to Hobart boat.
Wild Thing skipper Grant Wharington, whose boat was excluded from last year’s race due to paperwork issues, is primarily targeting handicap honours.
The bigger boats are again tipped to figure prominently in the battle for handicap victory.
Outside the supermaxis, Matt Allen’s new 60-foot Ichi Ban could finally deliver him overall honours after some near misses in his previous 70-foot boat of the same name.
Of the smaller boats, Tony Kirby’s brand new 46-foot Patrice has logged a string of podium placings since her launch three months ago.
The fleet contains the race’s biggest ever proportion of overseas boats, with close to a quarter of the entrants attached to foreign yacht clubs.