by Rob Kothe
With three top class 30 metre (98 feet) super maxi's in Bob Oatley's Wild Oats XI, Mike Slade's heavier City Index Leopard and Grant Wharington's rejuvenated Skandia and the right weather conditions, this year's 63rd Rolex Sydney to Hobart yacht race could be a record-breaking affair.
Wild Oats Iron Pot_Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race
However the moderate strength of the winds on Wednesday afternoon and the likely gentle winds on the Friday morning across Tasmania's Storm Bay may leave the record for the 628 nautical mile blue water classic untouched.
82 yachts from around Australia and overseas are expected to face the starter's gun at 1300 on Boxing Day and the first boat out Sydney Heads should be Wild Oats XI.
Oatley's crew, lead by the talented mark Richard is looking for a three 'peat having taken line honours in the last two races. If she gets the gun in the Derwent River, she will be only the second boat after Morna (1946-47-48) to take line honours in three successive years. Morna backed up again to take four line honours wins in 1954, 56, 57 and 1960.
The team aboard Australian built, British campaigned 30 metre City Index Leopard continue to talk up their chances but the heavy headwinds they need don't look all that probable.
Victorian super-maxi Skandia, the 2003 line honours winner, should also be up near the head of the fleet. Owner/skipper Grant Wharington believing his boat is best placed for a handicap win if the first afternoon north easterly strengthens fast enough to make it an optimal race for the line honours favourites.
But irrespective of the impressive technology and sailing talent on the leading boats, the record will only be broken if there are favourable winds from the early hours of Friday morning and through dawn across Storm Bay.
In a drama filled conclusion to the race in 2005 Wild Oats XI broke her mainsail batten gybing at Tasman Light and it was only the strong conditions that allowed her to finish so powerfully with her mainsail down at 7:40.10 am on the second day
The previous record set by Nokia in 1999 was one day, 19 hours, 48 minutes and two seconds and on that occasion winds on Storm Bay reached 40 knots as a south easter blasted up the coast.
Tacticians aboard Wild Oats XI and City Index Leopard believe their boats could smash the existing race record by between four and 10 hours, given favourable weather conditions.
Current forecasts suggest that the race leaders will struggle with 10-14 knots as they close on the Tasmanian coast on Thursday night, with lighter conditions on Friday morning.
It might be that if the record is to be broken it will have to have been powered by the earlier winds down the NSW coast and across Bass Strait.
However Michael Coxon from North Sails believes that Wild Oats XI giant new high tech Code Zero might be the weapon that gets her home. With this newly designed sail Oats XI has hit 14 knots in just seven knots of breeze and that could allow her to tippy toe home, well that's 14 knots in supermaxi terms.
But there is along way to go yet, there has hardly been a Hobart without a gear failure on one of the big boats.
In 2004 Skandia lost her keel in Bass Strait. Last year Maximus paid the penalty when she lost her mast in short sharp seas out wide on the first night and this time, she has not made the start line, because the twin hydraulic rams in her lifting keel malfunctioned on her delivery trip from New Zealand tearing her sliding keel apart.
In September Wild Oats XI, was dismasted in 11 knots of breeze during the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup off Porto Cervo.
In the latest betting on Australia's largest betting agency Sportingbet.com.au has Wild Oats XI on $1.60, City Index Leopard $3.25 and Skandia $7.50.
Mike Slade as expected warned everyone during the week 'You've got to sail the right course, you've got to get there and you've got to cross the line first - the most important of those is getting there in one piece.'