SYDNEY- Wind conditions are expected to favour bigger yachts at the start of the gruelling Sydney to Hobart race on Thursday but some of the smaller new entrants fancy their chances against the supermaxis in the stellar field.
Some 94 boats, including 22 international entrants, will be competing in the 628 nautical mile dash down Australia’s east coast to Tasmania island.
Cruising Yacht Club of Australia commodore Howard Piggott said it was one of the bluewater classic’s most impressive fields in years and a reflection of the Boxing Day race’s growing reputation as “one of the most famous ocean yacht races in the world”.
“We’ve assembled one of the best grand prix fleets for many years. A lot of people are going to be watching this race with keen interest, particularly yacht designers,” Piggott told AFP.
“There will be in excess of 10 boats which could possibly vie for line honours.”
Forecast conditions for the race, which sets off from Sydney Harbour before thousands of spectators on Thursday, favour the supermaxis, and 100-footer Wild Oats XI is a familiar favourite to win, perhaps in record time.
Wild Oats bagged an historic second triple crown in the 2012 edition crossing the line first and winning the overall handicap as well as setting a new record time of one day, 18 hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds.
But back-to-back victories are far from assured, with substantial modifications to arch-rival Perpetual LOYAL and three new yachts built for the regatta: Patrice, a Ker 46, Ichi Ban which is a Carkeek 60 and Beau Geste, a Botin 80 belonging to Hong Kong businessman Karl Kwok.
Ichi Ban skipper Matt Allen said it was the first time with so many unknown quantities.
“I think it’s very hard to pick a winner, I don’t think there’s any race in the world that you go to to see such an eclectic collection of boats,” Allen told a pre-race briefing.
“A lot of them, such as Beau Geste, to some degree Patrice and Ichi Ban are almost unproven boats. I know Patrice has been winning a lot of races recently, but we haven’t seen Beau Geste race. There’s lots of unknown commodities out there.”
Beau Geste skipper Gavin Brady, who has contested five America’s Cups and 10 Sydney to Hobarts, said they were “probably the most prepared yacht entered in the race”, having sailed under race conditions from Auckland to Sydney for a test run.
“Quite frankly, we’re ready and we’re confident,” he said.
As usual, it will come down to weather.
Wild storms saw six sailors perish in the 1998 edition, with five yachts sinking and 66 retiring from a fleet of 115.
Conditions are expected to be favourable to the big yachts, with an early nor-easter making for a quick run out of Sydney and down the coast and a cold front on Saturday morning pushing through the perilous Bass Strait between Tasmania and the Australian mainland.
The larger boats are expected to make it to Hobart before a southerly which is likely to pose significant challenges for the rest of the fleet.
Wild Oats navigator Tom Addis said the conditions had thrown the field open to lighter fellow supermaxis Ragamuffin and Wild Thing, V70s Black Jack and Giacomo and Beau Geste.
“Beau Geste might be quite special downwind. They’ve only just launched her, so we don’t really know,” said Addis.
“It used to be that a 100 footer was always faster than a 70 footer, but these days, with the latest designs and technology, on some angles they will be sailing faster than us.”
Navigating the maddening calm of Storm Bay and the Derwent River up to Hobart was always a major challenge, he added.
“It’s a really complicated finish with this race, and a lot of it is do to with the timing of what time of day you’re coming in and there’s nothing you can do about that,” said Addis.
Ichi Ban’s Allen said he was hoping for “a nor-easter all the way to Tasman Island and then a front the moment we reach Tasman Island.
“Last time I had those conditions we won the race so we’re hoping for that again,” he said.