The legacy of the 1998 race - where six sailors were lost to some of the severest storms seen in the event's history - weighs heavily on the minds of competitors during the countdown to the start on Boxing Day. The difference now is that the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia imposes the strictest of safety regulations on every crew.
But even sailors as experienced as Volvo Ocean Race skipper Jez Fanstone do not dare underestimate the threat of the unpredictable Bass Strait. 'This is my fourth Sydney Hobart. The last three races have all been pretty uncomfortable. It's a love-hate relationship, but you do it because you're competitive and because you love yacht racing, and the build-up to it, the preparation and getting the crew together. But there are times out there when it's not a very pleasant place to be. There's no point in getting upset about it, though. If you've got a good boat with a good chance of winning then you want to get out there and give it a good crack.'
This time he is skipper of Nick LYKIARDOPULO'S British entry, an immaculately prepared and professionally crewed Ker 55. Fanstone has a good idea of what he is letting himself in for; while for others it is their first taste of the Rolex Sydney Hobart. Philipp KADELBACH is a good dinghy sailor, but he has never done anything like this. About to race on board the 49-foot cruiser/racer Vineta, the young German comments: 'The danger is what makes it so special - that things have happened in the past, and that things could quite easily happen this time. So our first expectation is to arrive safely in Hobart, but the second expectation is to deliver a strong performance.'
On Boxing Day, the weather could not offer a kinder send-off for the massed yachts about to start in Sydney Harbour. Sunny blue skies and a moderate breeze get the 116 out of Sydney Heads and down the New South Wales coastline at record-breaking pace.
Brand new and untested 90-foot super maxi Nicorette leads out of the Heads by three seconds from last year's line-honours winner Skandia. But few expect Ludde INGVALL'S technologically extreme Nicorette to last the distance. Tried and tested reliability is the key to winning the Rolex Sydney Hobart. As the saying goes: to win it, first you have to arrive.
The fleet keeps up a fast pace as strong but manageable north-easterlies drive the boats down to the bottom of continental Australia. But here, in the transition to Bass Strait, the forecasters have predicted a rapid turnaround in wind direction, and unfortunately they are proven correct as 35-40 knot head winds assail the fleet. The two super maxis that fought it out in a close-run duel for line honours last year look set for another battle royal. Grant WHARINGTON'S Skandia holds an early advantage over Stewart THWAITES, Konica Minolta until Skandia collides with a 300kg sunfish. Skandia's steering seems affected, but not such that she is unable to continue to race. Further back down the fleet, 30 boats retire in quick succession as prudent seamanship prevails over the desire to continue to Hobart. A small group of yachts have taken shelter in Eden before deciding whether or not to press on.
Their decision to postpone crossing a gale-ridden Bass Strait seems wise, bearing in mind what happens just a few hours later. As the bow of 98-foot Skandia crashes down off steep and straight-backed wave tops, the hydraulic rams on the canting keel mechanism break, leaving the lead bulb jammed hard over to starboard. Wharington calls for sails to be taken down and life rafts to be deployed as the keel starts to work itself loose and the threat of detaching itself from the boat becomes ever more apparent.
Now is the time to put into practice the lessons from 1998, and Wharington later describes the rescue by the police vessel Van Diemen and the watchful eye of a television network helicopter as 'a textbook operation'. All 16 men escape unharmed, but a distraught skipper takes a flight over the empty Skandia to discover that her keel has indeed fallen off and that the blue hull now lies capsized, put potentially salvagable.
Meanwhile, Konica Minolta also lands badly off 'a ginormous wave', as Stewart THWAITES later described it. The mountings that hold the fixed keel to the hull have become badly loosened, and there is an alarming crease across the middle of the deck. After reinforcing the deck with any bit of spare wood, metal or carbon they get their hands on, Thwaites and his crew soon realise that to continue ploughing on towards Hobart would be foolish. The keel could fall off, or the whole boat could even snap in two and sink without trace.
The demise of the two full-size super maxis hands the lead to Nicorette, who is busy ducking in and out of every cove and bay down the Tasmanian seaboard, doing anything she can to avoid the boatbreaking waves further out to sea. It's an unorthodox strategy that appears to be working, but Ludde Ingvall is taking nothing for granted until he crosses that finish line in Hobart. 'It just takes one bad wave and you're in trouble,' he says on the radio, having just heard of the fate of Skandia and Konica Minolta.
Eventually, Nicorette ghosts into a cold, damp and almost windless Hobart at dawn. Their elapsed time for the race of about 2 days 16 hours 00 minutes 44 seconds is almost a day outside the record set by Volvo Ocean 60 Nokia in 1999, but just to bring their brand new boat home in one piece is achievement enough. Nicorette's victory is a triumph of engineering, caution and prudent seamanship.
'Yacht racing is about eliminating errors,' commented Ingvall, who also won line honours in 2000. 'We eliminated a big chunk of errors by heading into the shore when we knew what was coming. The problem is that you launch off waves with such speed and it hits the bottom of the wave, and that's when these boats break up.'
With that in mind, Aera's decision to head far out into the Tasman Sea, 150 miles away from land, seemed foolhardy in the extreme. And yet Fanstone and crew were looking like potential IRC handicap winners out there. She picked up a massive left-hand windshift that enabled her to sail a straighter course to Hobart than any other boat. When the British 55-footer crossed the line at 15:43:43 hours on 29 December, she had deposed Nicorette from the top of the handicap rankings by some margin. Smaller yachts behind could still beat Aera, but they would have to sail their socks off.
After a nervous wait for another day, Aera had been confirmed as winner of The Tattersalls Cup, only the third British yacht ever and twelfth foreign registered yacht to earn that accolade in 60 years. 'That was a three-day race and we spent two and a half years preparing for it,' commented Fanstone, who paid credit to the team. 'Out there, people were backing each other up the whole way, helping each other through. We've got a lot of experience on board this boat, and we've got a lot of experience in this race. Two and half years ago, when we started building the boat, we knew that we would be coming here to do this race in 2004. We designed a lot of the boat around this race.'
Behind Aera, the smaller boats were contending with a new set of problems, that of a lack of wind. But gradually, one by one, the yachts trickled into Hobart to receive a rapturous reception from the crowds. Even in the dead of night, sailors were being greeted to a round of applause. Whether or not they had won a Division trophy, sailors were simply elated to have arrived. Just over half the original 116 boat fleet managed to arrive. Skiff sailor Tony HANNAN was greatly relieved to have finished aboard the Lyons 46 Austmark. When asked if he was glad to have done the race, Hannan replied diplomatically: 'Well I'm glad I'm here. We had a young bloke on board, only 21, he did it for the first time and I guarantee he'll go again next year. For me, I do one about every 14 years, thanks very much. It's a bit cold and wet.'
'We had the storm gear up in the southerly just after we radioed in.. We battled across the Strait. Two days later we eventually went sailing again - as opposed to just getting hammered with waves and a lot of cold wind and water. But you soon forget those moments and you enjoy the spinnaker run down the Tasmanian coast, the sun comes out, and it's not so bad. You forget the worst and remember the best.'