Run annually, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia's flagship event the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, will start at 13:00 local time (AEST/GMT +10 hours) on Boxing Day, 26 December.
Long range weather forecasts are predicting fresh but not extreme conditions for the 628-mile race.
From a line right in the middle of Sydney's world famous harbour, the 57 boat Rolex fleet will make for the Sydney Heads, 4 miles to the North East. Over 2000 spectator boats and more than 300,000 spectators lining the shores will be there to witness the spectacle, one of the major sporting icons of the Australian Summer.
Having passed through the Sydney Harbour Heads the fleet will turn South and sail along the New South Wales coast, across Bass Strait and on to Hobart near the bottom of the island state of Tasmania and the finish line 11 miles up the Derwent River within view of the CBD.
The current race record stands just shy of 44 hours and amongst the fleet this year are several boats capable of setting a better time. Joint favourites for line honours are a pair of Super Maxis, one from each side of the Tasman, setting up what will be a fierce New Zealand versus Australia battle. From Melbourne is Grant WHARINGTON'S 98-foot Skandia, launched in October of this year, and from New Zealand is Stewart THWAITES' 98-foot Zana, launched just weeks ago in Wellington.
Another group of boats that is contending for line honours comprises five of the globetrotting Volvo 60s. These high tech machines are all capable of outstanding performances in the right conditions and will be enjoying further competition together following last year's Volvo Ocean Race.
The principal prize for the Rolex Sydney Hobart is the Tattersalls Cup which is awarded to the yacht with the lowest corrected time using the IMS handicap system. Over the last 58 years on only five occasions has the first boat home collected the handicap prize as well. Favourite for this year's handicap prize is Geoff ROSS' 52-footer Yendys, a mid-sized boat in this year's fleet. There being such a spread in boat sizes, the shortest boat is just 30 foot long and the longest almost 100 foot, that the overall winner will most likely be determined by the conditions encountered rather than any current form.
The Rolex Sydney Hobart is not just about breaking the record or winning on handicap. This iconic challenge, a 628-mile long offshore race, first sailed in 1945, has been a prime mover in the growth of offshore racing. For some it is a once-in-a-life-time challenge, for others it is part of a much bigger picture. It is not undertaken lightly by anyone and each boat and crew must fulfil strict qualification criteria before being allowed to compete. The race is still intricately linked to advances in yacht design, boat handling, seamanship techniques, safety equipment - and to the general popularity of the modern sport of sailing. It means different things to the more than 700 different people who will sail the course this year.
Like no other race the Rolex Sydney Hobart attracts every type of sailor from just about every sailing country in the world. As a result, sailing schools, corporate institutions, family-owned and crewed cruiser racers, dedicated amateurs, club sailors along with the hardened champions from the Grand Prix circuits, are all attracted to compete in one of the best known offshore races in the world. All come to enjoy the challenge of one of the trickiest and most demanding sporting events that an individual or a team can aspire to today.
There are more than 20 trophies to be awarded at the conclusion of this year's Rolex Sydney Hobart. The prize giving ceremony will take place at the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania on Friday 2 January 2004. As ever, collecting the top division prize will be the result of meticulous preparation as well as hard and intelligent sailing over the whole course. Whatever size or type of boat, whatever level the game is played at and no matter what the individual and team goals are, the 2003 Rolex Sydney Hobart has more than enough for everyone. Its' ongoing success says it all.
Skandia is the punters' choice for Line Honours three days out from the start.
Sports TAB is quoting the two month old, blue hulled maxi at $1.65 for an outlay of $1.00, a favouritism earned in the Rolex Trophy Series earlier this month when she was not headed in any of the nine races.
Second favourite for line honours is the Kiwi supermaxi Zana, also a 98-footer, owned and skippered by Stewart Thwaites, at $2.45. At those odds she is considered by pundits a very good bet.
Weather forecasts have led to little optimism out there that either Skandia or Zana will smash the race record, though both skippers believe that with the right conditions they could split hours off Nokia's 1999, 1 day 19 hour 48 minute record.
Shortest odds, at $3.50, are for the lead boat to take between 2 days 6 hours and 2 days 18 hours to get to the Hobart, while $4.00 says that the winner will take a full day longer than Nokia to cross the line
For optimists, the odds of the winner shaving Nokia's record have grown to $8.00, $15.00 if you think the fastest supermaxi can take between two and seven hours off the record.
Seventy-two hours before the start the official SportsTAB odds are:
Line Honours: Skandia 1.65
Line Honours Quinella: Skandia/Zana 1.75
Line Honours Quinella: Less than 24 hours 201.00
3 Days Plus 9:00