At 1pm on Boxing Day, as lunch is taken at the MCG, the gun will fire to signal the start of the 71st Sydney to Hobart yacht race.
This year 111 yachts registered for the 628-nautical-mile blue water classic, but unfortunately the only 109 will make the starting gun.
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. This year is no exception with a record 28 international crews taking place including two from mainland China, Ark 323, a TP52 and Shuguang Haiang, a Sun Odyssey 42i.
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 super maxis 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’.
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 is for the line honours winner and the Tattersall’s Cup is 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. However, 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, in theory anyway, give all contestants a chance of winning.
So which are the boats to look out for? Last year Wild Oats XI took line honours from the American contender Comanche by a mere 49 minutes. If all goes to plan this year, the race for line honours is likely to be between these two boats again, although this year both of the yachts have been modified to improve their performance.
As mentioned in the first article, Wild Oats XI has been significantly modified to improve her power and speed, while Comanche has had a few minor changes, to improve her performance in lighter winds, which is what cost her the race last year.
The dire long range forecast that was released earlier in the week, and had some of the media talking about another 1998 race, where six sailors lost their lives, fortunately appears not to be developing.
Instead the race is forecast to start in a 15 knot nor’- easter, building to 25 knots off shore.
This should lead to a spectacular start up the harbour, followed by a spinnaker set as the yachts turn south out of the heads, and a flying run down the coast for the first few hours.
Then all hell will break loose. A strong southerly of 35-40 knots wind strength, gusting to 50 knots with thunderstorms, will start to make its way through the fleet by early evening.
This front mixed with the southerly current will produce potentially boat breaking conditions. I expect a fair few retirements over Saturday night, Sunday morning, and a fair bit of seasickness too!
Fortunately the winds will moderate over Sunday, and instead of the originally forecast 50 knots through Bass Strait, there will be light winds down the Tasmanian coast.
That is bad news for Comanche, and a fillip for Wild Oats XI. I expect Comanche to lead the fleet into and possibly through the southerly, but those light winds on Sunday, will give Wild Oats the advantage.
Will Comanche be far enough ahead to hold on? I doubt it, and fully expect Wild Oats XI to take line honours again. Unfortunately, I also think that the run down the coast may put my dark horse Rambler out of contention too.
However in ocean racing all does not always go to plan, as nature may often has a say in the result. Adverse conditions can lead to equipment failure, sail, rigging or even hull damage, while 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 Rambler, Ragamuffin 100, Loyal or either of the Volvo 70s, Maserati and Black Jack.
In terms of the overall win, the forecast southerly and light winds across Bass Strait brings the 50-60 footers back into contention for the Tattersall’s Cup.
Chinese Whisper, and Ichi Ban would have to be the top contenders, and I am going to stick my neck out and give it to Chinese Whisper. She is a very fast boat, has sailed well all around the world, and has some seriously good sailors aboard.
Apart from those in contention for the silverware, there are a few other yachts to keep an eye on. Perennial 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.
She may not be at the very front of the fleet, but if any of the leaders slip up, she may be close enough to pounce.
Also keep an eye out for the Clipper Fleet, 12 identical yachts, sailing the Sydney to Hobart as one leg of their round the world race. As you may be able to tell from my profile picture, my personal favourite in the Clipper Fleet is ‘Visit Seattle’, which is being followed on Twitter by the Seattle Seahawks 1.2 million followers!
Follow the race via The Roar, from start to finish.