Countdown to an Aussie Classic

Sydney ramps up for the annual Sydney to Hobart race. From "First Beat" December 18, 2007

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In what has mostly been a drab, dreary start to the Australian summer, the sun made a brief cameo appearance last week, and the lunchtime scene at Sydney's Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) was hopping. As barmen poured "middies" and "schooners" of Victoria Bitter, the business crowd in their natty attire lounged like lizards beneath the rays on the back patio.

On the docks, however, there was an entirely different sort of buzz. There, crewmen in T-shirts and sailing shorts tended to sails, hardware, and other matters on the gathering fleet of race boats in preparation for an annual Aussie holiday rite: the Boxing Day (December 26) start of the 628-mile Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race.
In the lead-up to the event, every sailor on every yacht--there are 84 entries for this year's race, down from 87 for 2006--has their own specific set of concerns, yet each has one question nestling in the back of their mind: What will the weather bring? This may be especially vexing given the strange days of late 2007.

"You know, wherever you go in the world, you always hear the same thing," said CYCA commodore Matt Allen in a spare instant when his cell phone wasn't ringing. "Namely, 'It's never like this.' You can say that about Sydney at the moment. We've had a lot of rain and some very regular fronts coming through, more than you'd normally get. But what will we get on Boxing Day? No idea."

Allen has more than a passing interest in what will come to pass. Along with his official duties with the race's sponsoring yacht club, he'll also be competing in the event as the skipper of Ichi Ban, the Volvo 70 fellow Aussie Grant Wharington campaigned in the 2005-06 edition of the round-the-world race. Last year, Ichi Ban finished second to Bob Oatley's 30-meter maxi Wild Oats XI, which is looking to match the race record of three straight line-honors victories (the boat also holds the race record of 1d, 18h, 14m, 10s, set in 2005). It won't be easy, as there are three other maxis in the race, all of which are hoping and scheming to be the first to Hobart. Mike Slade's ICAP Leopard, Wharington's Skandia, and the New Zealand entry Maximus (which dropped her rig last year on the first morning at sea and may scratch this year, too, after suffering an 8-inch crack in her keel on the delivery from Auckland), all have the power, and the all-star crews, to topple Oatley's dreams of a trifecta.

"In a lot of conditions, Wild Oats is a very quick boat," said Allen. "But if we get the usual conditions you see going to Hobart, I'd probably put my money on Leopard." All that said, Allen's not conceding anything to the Big Boys, and he's even considered the idea for Ichi Ban to crash the party of the so-called "Battle of the Titans."

"Look, you normally expect to cop a front at some point," he said. "We'd probably like quite heavy running conditions (at the beginning), followed by a strong front. So you extend on all the boats behind you and then they throw a bit of heavy weather at the boats out in front, see how they all go."

What no one wants to see is anything resembling the 1998 race, when a weather bomb rendezvoused with the bulk of the southbound fleet in the notorious Bass Strait; six sailors perished, and another 56 were rescued from life rafts and crippled yachts. But the race is a challenge every year, thanks in part to the demanding racecourse.

After departing the city's amazing harbor through the prominent Sydney Heads, the opening stages down the New South Wales coastline--boosted by a southerly current of up to four knots--can be quick and rewarding or dramatic and painful, depending on which way the wind's blowing. Like Allen, everyone hopes for the big early northerly. The next obstacle is the aforementioned Bass Strait, also known as "the paddock," a relatively shallow body of water that's been known to test the hardiest of sailors. The third leg takes the racers down the east coast of Tasmania before they finally make their way up the Derwent River to the finish line off Hobart's historic Battery Point.

There's but one U.S. entry in the fleet, but it's a formidable one. Roger Sturgeon's Farr-designed STP 65 Rosebud has been taking names and kicking butt since her arrival Down Under, racking up IRC handicap victories in both of the big round-the-cans events leading up to the main event, the SOLAS Big Boat regatta and the Rolex Trophy Series. With a win in the Hobart Race, Rosebud could register her very own special Triple Crown.

They've been racing to Hobart since 1945, when the race began as essentially a cruise in company between nine boats. In the intervening years, the boats and sailors who've made their name in the event have reached legendary status here in Oz. Among this year's notable entrants are Lou Abrahams, who'll be sailing his 45th Hobart, and former America's Cup antagonist Syd Fischer, who'll be contesting his 39th dash south. Both Abrahams and Fischer have spent time in the winner's circle, the former twice and the latter three times. To follow the event, visit the race website (www.rolexsydneyhobart.com).

As to what will transpire in 2007, it all remains to be seen. "You just never know who's going to break down, what issues you're going to have, what the weather gods are going to throw at you on the way through," said Allen.

"Racing to Hobart, you just never know."