All 78 competitors from the mighty 98ft line honours contenders such as Wild Oats, Skandia and Maximus down to the 27ft classic yacht Maluka sail to a handicap rating known as IRC and whoever completes the 628-mile course fastest - once their handicap has been applied to their elapsed time - wins the Rolex Sydney Hobart and this prestigious trophy.
This handicap system would work fine were it not for the vagaries of the weather. While last year's winner, Bob OATLEY's super-maxi Wild Oats XI set a new course record of 1 days 18 hours, the slower boats can take anywhere up to five or six days, and the variation in conditions over this period play a large part in determining the overall winner. If conditions are strong and consistent, with winds from a favourable direction, then it favours the big boats as it did last year when Wild Oats XI achieved the rare race double of both the handicap win and line honours victory. If conditions are unfavourable for the start, but improve over the course of the race, then the smaller boats can have a good run into Hobart and a winner is likely to be found among their ranks.
As a rule, the largest or smallest boats rarely win the Rolex Sydney Hobart on handicap - statistically boats in the 40 - 50ft range are favoured. Bob THOMAS was the last small boat winner when he and co-skipper Ed PSALTIS came out on top aboard their Hick 35, AFR Midnight Rambler, in the devastating 1998 race when extreme weather resulted in six losing their lives.
'It is just timing,' explains THOMAS, a Californian who has lived in Australia for the last 30 years. 'The 40 footers get down there and generally avoid another cold front. We did five Hobarts in our 30 footer and we just missed winning twice. Had we been just that little bit bigger and quicker we would have got in with that previous system. The weather systems seem to work against the smaller boats. I think on average once in every ten years one wins - 10 years prior to us it was Illusion, a Davidson 34. But in both those races, they were very rough and boats were really surviving. We collected so much handicap time that we did very well in the end.'
Michael SPIES, who won the Tattersall's Cup on board his Beneteau First 40.7 production boat First National Real Estate in 2003, says boats in the 40 - 50ft range on average seem to be more in sync with the weather compared to boats smaller or larger. 'A lot of the success in the Hobart race has to do with what time you arrive at the Tasman light. The gate can either open or shut for you there. If you go further back in history the 36 - 40ft boats were probably also favoured but if you look at the new breed of 40 - 50 footers they are a day quicker so they are arriving at Tasman that much earlier.' He adds that it may also simply be due to numbers - generally boats in this size range are very well represented.
This year for the third time THOMAS and PSALTIS are racing their latest AFR Midnight Rambler, a beefed up Farr 40, with more structure added and taken out of class with a new keel. This they will race with a similar line-up of amateur crew they have sailed with for the last 16 years.
Thomas reckons that the handicap favourites this time will be the new 50-60 footers. 'Assuming Wild Oats XI doesn't get a run all the way down there in one hit and there is a compression of the fleet, then I think Loki, Quantum Racing and the new Yendys will be difficult to beat. Those 50-footers are well sailed, technically nice boats and will be the real benchmark.'
Spies, this year racing as sailing master on board Matt ALLEN's Volvo Open 70 Ichi Ban, offers up similar names. 'To my thinking there is no stand-out small boat this year. Loki has a very good program this year and they have stepped up to the mark and I think their short race success has indicated they will be right on the money. Then there is the new Yendys and Geoff ROSS always has a good program. ABN AMRO, when there's been breeze, has proved very competitive under IRC and I would like to think we are under that umbrella as well. If Wild Oats gets far enough ahead and can get a gate at the end which we miss, you can't dismiss her.'
But with the forecast still showing strong upwind conditions for the start, with a nasty sharp seaway thanks to the southerly wind fighting the south-going current, THOMAS reckons the field is still really wide open. 'It looks like a normal Hobart with a bit of wind to start with, a day free running and then another cold front waiting for us in Bass Straight - nothing killer - and I think the whole fleet will finish on that following system. That is good for us in that it will compress the fleet a few times and the big boats shouldn't run away from us. Canting keels [as found on the super-maxis, the Volvo Open 70s and the two Cookson 50s] have such a tremendous advantage over us on handicap if we have the same conditions, but if you compress the fleet twice you probably take that advantage away and you could have little Impeccable [John WALKER's _ tonner] win the race.'
The Rolex Sydney Hobart race starts at 1300 local time on 26 December. Given the expected weather, the winner of the Tattersall's Cup is unlikely to be confirmed until New Year's Eve.
Full list of nominated yachts available from: www.rolexsydneyhobart.com
The Cruising Yacht Club of Australia's 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will start in Sydney Harbour on Tuesday 26 December at 13:00 from two start lines off Nielsen Park.For all the news on the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race CLICK HERE.