The world's biggest and best assembly of maxi yachts in recent times will contest this year's Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.
Seven of them will be on the start line, and five have a real chance of leading the fleet of 100 entries into Hobart in the 65th running of the Australian 628-nautical mile ocean-racing classic, which starts on Boxing Day, December 26.
Race record-holder Bob Oatley's Wild Oats XI, chasing her fifth consecutive line honours win, faces strongest competition from Neville Crichton's near sister Reichel/Pugh designed Alfa Romeo, and Mike Slade's Rolex Fastnet Race record holder ICAP Leopard, a Farr design from the UK.
The Greg Elliott-designed Investec Loyal (Sean Langman) and Etihad Stadium (Grant Wharington), the Don Jones design that formerly raced as Skandia Wild Thing, also have line honours ambitions, although Etihad Stadium's chances of making the start hang in the balance. On the delivery trip from Melbourne to Sydney last week, Etihad Stadium's mast broke and "never-say-die" Wharington is desperately trying to have a replacement - Alfa Romeo's, spare mast - air freighted from France in time for the race start.
All these maxis are canting-keel powered. Leopard, Wild Oats XI, Alfa Romeo and Loyal have been lengthened from 98ft overall to 100ft, to the new maximum length allowed for the Rolex Fastnet and Rolex Sydney Hobart Races.
The competition between these five boats should help to push one of them, given favourable downwind running conditions, to break the race record which stands at 1 day, 18 hours, 40 minutes, 10 seconds, set by Wild Oats XI in 2005.
The contest for the race's major trophy, the Tattersalls' Cup for the overall winner on IRC handicap, is wide open and weather-dependent, headed in favouritism by a strong group of TP 52s including last year's winner Quest (Bob Steel), two re-vamped Reichel/Pugh 62-63 foot near-sister designs, Alan Brierty's Limit, with Gavin Brady onboard, and Stephen Ainsworth's Loki, upgraded for their second season. Then there is Ran (Niklas Zennstrom), a Judel/Vrolijk 72 from Great Britain, untested in the southern hemisphere, but with a formidable track record including winning the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race overall and Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in the Mini Maxi division. Onboard will be America's Cup and Volvo Ocean Race veterans, tactician Adrian Stead, Steve Hayles, Tim Powell, Andy Hemmings, and Richard Bouzaid. Michael Hiatt's Living Doll, a one-year old Farr 55, is another hot overall handicap prospect. So is Geoff Ross' Reichel/Pugh 55 Yendys, which has a new keel that is half a metre deeper and 420kg, and will have Volvo racer and 49er Olympian Chris Nicholson as sailing master and principal helmsman.
The fleet - the second strongest in a decade - includes 12 overseas yachts. Among them is another maxi the 100ft Rapture, a Farr-designed performance cruiser owned by American Brook Lenfest. The Sparkman & Stephens 41 Pinta-M, (Atse Blei) from the Netherlands remained in Australia since the 2008 race (where she finished third in IRC division 4), and will have another crack at the Tattersalls' Cup.
The head of the fleet duel between Wild Oats XI and Alfa Romeo has been ongoing and close for four years. At their first meeting, Wild Oats XI beat Alfa Romeo by an hour and 16 minutes in her 2005 Rolex Sydney Hobart line honours win. Their duel continued in the Mediterranean in 2006 where Alfa Romeo won the 2006 Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, with Wild Oats third.
In the 2007 Med season, the two yachts swapped line honours dominance at the Giraglia Rolex Cup and Superyacht Cup at Palma. Then Alfa Romeo took line honours from Oats by 38sec in the first race of the 2007 Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup; but, two minutes after the start of race two, Oats' mast fell down, taking the boat out of the regatta.
While Wild Oats XI returned to Australia, Alfa Romeo stayed on in the Med for the 2008 season. This year, Sydney-based New Zealander Neville Crichton brought Alfa Romeo back to Australia, on the way taking line honours in the 2,225nm Transpac Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, with a time of 5 days, 14hrs, 36mins that broke the race record by more than a day.
Prior to the Transpac, Alfa Romeo put in a new, lighter mast and rigging from Southern Spars, that offers less windage, but otherwise there have been no major changes to the boat. Said Crichton, "There have been little changes that add up to seconds a mile. We tried to pull weight out wherever possible and we have some new sails."
Crichton sees Alfa Romeo and Wild Oats XI as the most reliable boats of the five line honours favourites. "In a heavy southerly, Leopard would have the advantage. Heavy air running would suit Etihad Stadium; Wild Oats XI and ourselves are more all-rounders."
Despite being lengthened to 100ft, Wild Oats XI will sail with fewer crew, 18 instead of last year's 24 which, notes skipper and helmsman Mark Richards, will represent a weight saving of over one ton in crew baggage and body weight. While numbers are reduced, they still sport an all-star lineup with the likes of Volvo winner and ISAF Rolex World Sailor Mike Sanderson, Robbie Naismith, Ian Murray, Adrienne Cahalan, and Ian Burns onboard.
Wild Oats XI and Alfa Romeo were matched equally in speed in the SOLAS Big Boat Challenge; around the 14nm course in Sydney Harbour on Tuesday, the pair were seldom more than two boat lengths apart at each mark rounding in a fair 15-18 knot nor'easter. Alfa Romeo gained the winning lead only when Oats' wine-glassed her spinnaker when hoisting at the last mark.
"There is nothing between the two boats in speed," said Wild Oats XI Richards. "In the Hobart it could come down to sail selection and sail changes."
At the 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race, ICAP Leopard, a powerful Farr design, built by McConaghy in Sydney, in her first major long-distance race, smashed the record by 8 hrs, 50min, while Alfa Romeo was among the retirements in that edition's rough seas and 40 knot winds.
ICAP Leopard finished 27 minutes behind Wild Oats XI in the 2007 Rolex Sydney Hobart after applying pressure all the way, and won line honours again this year in both the Rolex Fastnet and the Rolex Middle Sea Races.
In 2007, she was lengthened to 100ft and fitted with twin rudders - and for Hobart the boat has a new sail wardrobe. "Ninety per cent of the sails we will be using in this race are brand-new," says boat captain Chris Sherlock.
The crew includes strong afterguard professionals from Volvo Ocean Race and America's Cup teams: navigator Jules Salter, watch captains Brad Jackson and Rob Greenhalgh, and tactician Ray Davies. All were aboard for this year's Rolex Fastnet and Rolex Middle Sea Races.
A fleet of 100 yachts will compete in this year's race, which starts at 13:00 AEDT, 26 December 2009. The Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet will have crews representing Great Britain, the USA, New Zealand, Spain, the Netherlands, and New Caledonia as well as every Australian state.
To view the list of yachts applied to enter go to www.rolexsydneyhobart.com