For most casual spectators, and many in the media, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia's Rolex Sydney Hobart is all about who gets there first - not surprising, really.
There are few sights in sport more awesome than a 100 foot super maxi blasting through the waves at better than 25 knots. It takes incredible skill, teamwork, resolve and cash to win line honours in a race as long, tactically complex and downright cantankerous as the Hobart.
And anyway, isn't that what races are - a race to be first across the line?
Yet in this race, it is very rare for a boat to both win line honours and come first (win overall). Wild Oats XI was the last to do it when she famously took line honours, won the race and broke the record in 2005.
If the winner was the first across the line, then the fleet this year would be maybe four, five boats, not the 78 that will line up on Boxing Day. Those other 74 odd boats aren't there to make up the numbers - they are there to win the Tattersall's Cup - the true holy grail of Australian ocean racing.
The winner of the Rolex Sydney Hobart isn't the first to get there, it's the boat that takes the least time, or should we say, the least "handicapped" time, such as players have in golf.
Build a big carbon fibre thoroughbred with a canting keel and of course it will get to Hobart before a modest, conventional little boat, but the Rolex Sydney Hobart isn't just a race between yachts, it's a contest between crews. So this is a handicap race.
For a time between 1999 and early 2003, Hobart yachts competed under both the IMS and IRC handicapping systems, with the top IMS boat winning the Tattersall's Cup. But in the 2004 race, the CYCA determined that the yacht that won on IRC would henceforth win the race outright.
Under the IRC rule, an owner takes a whole lot of fairly straightforward measurements of his or her yacht; the length, weight, overhangs and sail sizes, whether the boat has a fixed or canting keel, water ballast, carbon fibre or aluminium mast.
That information is sent to the Rating Office of the Royal Ocean Racing Club in the UK, which then issues a rating for the boat, which is basically a multiplier of the boats elapsed time during a race.
Each hour the boat takes to finish is multiplied by its rating time handicap factor to produce its corrected time. The higher the rating, the bigger the multiplier, the bigger the difference between handicap time and elapsed time.
Think of it this way. Each boat is effectively compared to a theoretical yacht with a 1 rating, so its rating is how many minutes it should be ahead of or behind that theoretical yacht after an hour's sailing if both crews are sailing their boats as well as they can.
The winner is the crew which takes the least time to reach Hobart once its handicap is applied.
IRC took over from IMS, largely because the latter sought to become the perfect formula for wildly different yacht shapes and sizes. It took very technical, scientific approach. All of a yacht's measurements were compiled to create a 3D model that could predict the boat's speed in a range of anticipated wind and wave conditions using a Velocity Prediction Program.
It was a great improvement over the IOR handicap system which had dominated yacht racing for years and years. Whereas IMS based its speed forecasts on a view of the whole hull and rig, IOR measured a whole lot of different points on the boat, so designers began putting lots of little bumps and curves here and there, not because they made the boat safer or faster, sometimes quite the contrary, but because they reduced the rating.
Mainsails got smaller, while big, hard to manage headsails got even bigger. The best designers "gamed" the rule. So in the 70's, the top IOR boats were heavy displacement, fine bowed, very powerful to windward, but very prone to broaching downwind. They certainly had their heart stopping moments, but you would never call them exhilarating.
Then, later, as the rule evolved, designers like Bruce Farr swept the field with wedge shaped, fuller stern boats that many criticised as not particularly seaworthy.
IMS boats were cleaner, faster, more fun and less expensive. But over time, this quest for the perfect rule became ever more complex and technical, and designers found they could game the rule with slab sided, high freeboard, low stability yachts.
Geoff Ross was initially a great supporter of IMS, campaigning some of the best IMS racers in Australia under the name Yendys, but he now says that IMS proved a complete failure.
"It failed owners,"
Ross says, "Because it did not protect them from new boats."
An expensive, state of the art IMS boat could become superceded and uncompetitive within months as the next, latest IMS design rolled out of the yard.
By contrast, IRC is much simpler, and it tends to favour medium displacement boats and simple rigs. It also protects owners from new boats, Ross says. "It preserves the competitiveness of existing boats and rewards new boats. Look at Loki,"
he says, "she is four years old now but she is still winning races."
The same can be said for Love & War
, the 39 year-old wooden boat that won the Rolex Sydney Hobart for the third time in 2006, and others like her.
Moreover, a secrecy clause means that designers cannot game the IRC rule so easily. Only the RORC Rating Office knows the formula, which they are constantly amending in response to results and owner feedback. The RORC burghers guide designers and owners from the back room, issuing new guidelines every year, but there is no definitive, public formula that will allow a designer to guarantee the owner an absolute rating.
IRC acolytes consider this secrecy the strength of the system. There is as yet no clear idea of what an optimal IRC yacht might look like, and in recent years we have seen the rule produce some really exciting boats that are immense fun to sail, but safe and very forgiving. Whereas once even elite ocean racers plodded down to Hobart at 9 knots, today 25 knot plus reaches are the order of the day on the top boats.
Some though, like Ed Psaltis, a former Hobart winner, do worry about what he calls the secret fudge factor "that allows the powers that be to act like gods,"
favouring a particular style of boat.
The IRC rule was originally introduced to give mum and dad cruiser racers a way to compete against the IMS Grand Prix boats. Psaltis, who's super-fast and exciting skiff-like Ker 40 AFR Midnight Rambler
is very much a Grand Prix racer, believes while the rule has spawned exciting bigger boats, like the TP52's and last year's race winner, Loki
, a Reichel/Pugh 63; in the 38 to 45 foot range the rule favours what he calls "a certain type of French built cruiser racer".
Bruce Taylor, who's latest Chutzpah
is one of the most exciting boats in the fleet, worries that since the 38 to 45 foot range is the entry level for ocean racing, the next generation won't leave their thrilling, edgy skiffs for what he sees as the stodgy boats voted most likely to win by the English rating office.
Psaltis says that Bruce Farr is already designing a Beneteau 40 that beats the rule, the same way designers beat the IOR rule. "Good designers can always beat any rule,"
Critics and advocates of the prevailing system all agree, though, that there has to be a balance in the Rolex Sydney Hobart, and in ocean racing generally, between the club friendly cruiser racers and the flat out Grand Prix types.
The CYCA points to the wide range of yachts, from super maxis to 30 year old former IOR veterans like Love & War
, Beneteau 40's, to last year's thoroughbred Loki
, which have graced the podium in recent years as clear evidence that the IRC handicapping system is working well.
Both cruiser racer and elite Grand Prix crews are in with a winning chance in a race that somehow continues to inspire amateurs and professionals alike. A Loki
can win, but so can a Maluka
Globally a trans Atlantic war is developing between the English and the French, who love IRC, and the Americans, who are pushing for a sort of son of IMS, the ORCi, which is transparent and takes the best of IMS, but is not as technically complex.
Psaltis like ORCi because of its transparency, but Ross says what matters is not whether the rule is transparent or secret, but what results it has produced. "It has produced quicker, better balanced boats and astonishingly good racing."
That debate will no doubt provide hours of fun in club bars around Australia over the next few years, and this year a number of yachts will be competing in both IRC and ORCi categories. Who knows how the yachts will be rated in 2020?
However, for the 2012 Rolex Sydney Hobart, IRC rules.