Next week's ACE Etchells World Championship 2004 off Mooloolaba on Queensland's Sunshine Coast promises to be the most open in the recent history of this international one-design keelboat.
On current form and past reputation, as many as 20 of the 85 competitors from all Australian fleets, England, Hong Kong, Italy, New Zealand and the United States have an excellent chance of winning this prestigious title, whose past winners have included America's Cup skippers, Olympic medallists and past World Champions in the Etchells and other classes..
Perfect sailing conditions, 10-15 knot south-easterly seabreezes, have been forecast for the invitation race and the first of the eight championship heats, with racing starting next Sunday, 1 August, and continuing through to the following Sunday, 8 August.
The racing will be on open waters on the wide bay off the sweeping surf beaches of this popular resort town north of Brisbane, placing emphasis on boat handling, sail trim and tactics, as well as expert helmsmanship.
Key to success in the huge fleet will be getting good starts, maintaining boatspeed and picking the favourable windshifts and, overall, consistency with top placings. Winning races is not essential, consistent good results are vital.
Most prominent among the international skippers are Australian John BERTRAND and American Dennis CONNER who nearly 21 years ago fought out the America's Cup off Newport, Rhode Island, with Bertrand sailing Australia II to victory.
Conner is a two times Etchells World Champion, and while Bertrand has yet to win a Worlds, he has been Australian, New Zealand and New South Wales Champion.
Conner's form in the two Pre-Worlds regattas he has contested has been mediocre whereas Bertrand's preparations have been most impressive, justifying his position of number one ranking Etchells skipper in the world.
This year he has won the New Zealand and New South Wales Championships and here at Mooloolaba has finished a close second in the Australian Winter Championship, equal first in the Pre-Worlds #2 regatta and third in last weekend's Pre-Worlds #3 regatta.
Nevertheless, Conner is still such a superb yachtsman that he cannot be discounted in any sailing event, least of all the Etchells which is his regular club racing class in San Diego.
However, the competition will be formidable for Bertrand and Conner, with many younger yachtsmen (and several of similar vintage) showing they have the sailing skills to win a Etchells World Championship.
Standing out among them is Cameron APPLETON, the number two helmsman for New Zealand's current America's Cup Challenge, who last weekend won the ACE Pre-Worlds #3 regatta. He won last year's Australian Winter Championship at Mooloolaba and then went on to finish fourth in the 93 boat fleet at the 2003 Etchells World Championship in the USA.
Another younger sailor with impressive credentials is Brisbane's Mark BRADFORD who has twice won the Australian Winter Championships at Mooloolaba and has been prominent in the lead-up regattas to next week's Worlds.
Two Australians who have won previous Etchells Worlds, Cameron MILES from Pittwater and John SAVAGE from the Melbourne fleet, continue to be strong in the class, with Miles finishing third to American Ken READ in the 2003 Worlds. Read is not sailing at Mooloolaba.
Australian Champion Mark BULKA, from Mornington, has been sailing impressively in the Pre-Worlds, as has former Olympian Chris PRATT from Adelaide, along with Michael COXON and Phil DASH from the Sydney fleet.
Rob BROWN, the former 18-footer World Champion, who tied with his Australia II skipper John BERTRAND in the Pre-Worlds #2, is a relative newcomer to Etchells sailing but must be considered a leading prospect.
Grant WHARINGTON, who this weekend will skipper his super maxi Skandia in the Ingles Sydney Gold Coast Race before dashing up to Mooloolaba, won the Australian Winter Championship in June but has done little Etchells sailing since.
Fellow Victorians Noel DRENNAN and Ian JOHNSTON also have high reputations in Etchells as has Tasmanian Andrew HUNN, back with a brand new boat to replace the one damaged beyond repair in a crunching collision in last month's Winter Championship.
Of the local Mooloolaba fleet, David TURTON has been sailing consistently well and knows the local waters - now 34, he has been a member of Mooloolaba Yacht Club since he was four years old, and has sailed in the area for more than 25 years.
For most of the other overseas entrants from New Zealand, the USA, Hong Kong, England and Italy, their first experience of winter sailing weather in the open waters off the Sunshine Coast will be a couple of days practice sailing and then the Invitation Race on Sunday. After that, the competition will be full on every day.