At least a dozen ocean racing yachts can be considered strong contenders to win the historic Tattersalls Cup, awarded to the overall handicap winner of the 2003 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.
A final fleet of 57 yachts, representing New Zealand, USA, Sweden, Great Britain and all States of Australia, will line up on Sydney Harbour at 1pm tomorrow, 26 December for the 59th running of what is one of the world's three great ocean classics.
With the forecast of 10-15 knot south-west to south-east winds, a colourful spinnaker start is likely from the line 400 metres north of Shark Island, with up to 300,000 spectators on the water and around the harbour headlands.
Overall Winner of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race is the yacht with the lowest corrected time under the grand prix IMS (International Measurement System).
This is calculated by each yacht's elapsed time for the 628 nautical mile time being multiplied by a pre-determined TCF (Time Correction Factor).
IMS is a proven international handicapping system that has been used over the past 12 years to produce a level playing field for yachts that range in size from 9 to 30 metres, and in age from the classic Love and War built 30 years ago to the state-of-the-art super maxis, Skandia and Zana, launched only two months ago.
Two other handicap systems are used for the Rolex Sydney Hobart, the increasingly popular IRC (International Rule Club) which, like IMS, is a computer-generated assessment of a yacht's optimum performance taking into account its size, displacement, sail area, hull and rig materials, sail area, with a built-in age factor for older boats.
The third system is PHS (Performance Handicap System) which is an arbitrary system which largely caters for yachts not rated under IMS or IRC.
Cruising Yacht Club of Australia pundits today said that heading the favourites for the premier IMS category must again be last year's winner, Quest, a Nelson/Marek 46, skippered by 2003 Ocean Racer of the Year, Sydney yachtsman Bob Steel.
Unlike most other contenders, Steel and his crew have not contested lead-up regattas, rather focusing entirely on specific preparations to win the long blue water classic two years in succession, a rare achievement in the 58 year history of the event.
The 'form' yachts of the race are Yendys, Geoff ROSS' Judel Vrolijk 52, winner of the IMS Division of the recent Rolex Trophy Series, and Ichi Ban, Matt ALLEN'S Farr 52, which won the IRC of that series.
Yendys is a specialist IMS racer from Europe, but had a slight setback this week when unexpected work had to be done to the keel, leaving crew still working on the boat today at the CYCA.
Veteran Syd FISCHER as always must be reckoned with and has been sailing well with his recently optimised Farr 50, Ragamuffin, which now has a sweptback spreader rig and new D4 sails, similar to those on Quest.
The US yacht Zaraffa, a powerful Reichel/Pugh 65 owned by Skip SHELDON, a retired professor of pathology at the famous McGill University, has come to Australia with a long ocean race background that includes wins in the world's other two bluewater classics, the Bermuda Race in the USA and the Rolex Fastnet Race in England.
Weather forecasts for later in the race, including strong north-easterlies, may favour the smaller boats in the fleet as they dash down the Tasmanian east coast under spinnakers.
These include the Sydney 38s from Melbourne, Another Challenge (Lou ABRAHAMS) and Chutzpah (Bruce TAYLOR), sailed by two of the most experienced yachtsmen in the fleet, Abrahams have already won this race with Challenge III in 1983 and finished third overall last year with Another Challenge.
Even smaller, but with excellent prospects of winning on corrected time under IMS are Rod SKELLET'S Young 31 Krakatoa from the CYCA, and Robert HICK'S 31-footer Toecutter from Melbourne.
The new Toecutter, according to Hicks who designed and built the boat, is an improvement on his previous boat which was leading on progressive corrected time results in last year's race until becalmed for hours in Storm Bay, less than 30 nautical miles from the finish.
The Commodore of Britain's Royal Ocean Racing Club, Chris LITTLE, has chartered the 1999 Sydney Hobart Race winner Sting (ex Yendys) and re-named the Farr 49 as Bounder for the race. Little and his crew sailed an excellent Rolex Trophy Series and must also rank as a prospect IMS winner.
The conditions of this year's race may also favour the Swan 48, Loki, which Stephen Ainsworth skippered to victory in the recent JPMorgan Regatta.
Then, say the pundit, you can never discount the well sailed older boats in this long ocean race, pointing to 79-year-old Peter KURTS with his 30-year-old Love and War, a classic timber yacht designed by Sparkman & Stephens back in the 1970s.
Love and War has twice won this race on corrected time, represented Australia at the Admiral's Cup and won the Classic Division of the 50th Sydney Hobart in 1994.
Line honours favourites, the 98-footers Zana (Stewart THWAITES) from New Zealand and Australia's Skandia (Grant WHARINGTON) can also be considered strong contenders to win the IRC division, despite their maximum ratings.
The CYCA allows multiple entries by eligible yachts in IMS and IRC handicap categories, but Skandia is not eligible because she has a canting keel and Zana is ruled out because of special equipment not permitted under the more restrictive iMS rule.
Nicorette, Ludde INGVALL'S 80-footer from Sweden is considered a line honours prospect in heavy weather, but is racing only in IRC because she too has a canting keel.
George SNOW'S conventional maxi, Brindabella, a Jutson 79, is contesting both IMS and IRC, but the other big boats, Sean LANGMAN'S Grundig and the four Volvo 60s, Seriously Ten (John WOODRUFF), Andrew Short Marine (Andrew SHORT), formula1sailing.com, chartered by a British crew, and Nokia 2UE, skippered by Peter Sorensen, are sailing only under IRC