Sailing: Dalton hopes for a classic twist to his homecoming

The Boxing Day exodus from Sydney Harbour on the 630-mile ocean classic Sydney-Hobart race will be bolstered by the presence of the eight-boat fleet in the Volvo Ocean Race around the world on the way, via Hobart, to Auckland and the finish of the third leg.

The Boxing Day exodus from Sydney Harbour on the 630-mile ocean classic Sydney-Hobart race will be bolstered by the presence of the eight-boat fleet in the Volvo Ocean Race around the world on the way, via Hobart, to Auckland and the finish of the third leg.

The Sydney-Hobart, the southern-hemisphere equivalent of the Fastnet race, is always a stern test, often an upwind slog, occasionally into brutal conditions. Memories of 1998, when several sailors, including the Briton Glyn Charles, lost their lives, were never far from the surface as the fleet prepared for the start.

The crux of the matter is that the race south and the potentially capricious sail into and out of the finish in Hobart, where the fleet will have a three-and-a-half-hour pit-stop before setting sail for Auckland, will have a significant bearing on the outcome of the third leg of the Volvo Race.

Beating into strong conditions is certain to separate the field and provide plenty of scope for gear damage. And at the end, light airs on the river up to Hobart could split the boats by several hours. But perhaps the chasing pack will be able to use this chance to their advantage in the fight to stop Illbruck from battening down the race before it even reaches the halfway stage. Having prevailed in legs one and two in consummate style, an Illbruck win on this leg as well would crack the spirit of the competition at a relatively early stage in the nine-leg race.

One man who will be trying harder than anyone to be first into Auckland is Grant Dalton, who is expecting to lead Amer Sports One on to the racetrack despite still suffering from the damage to his ribs that he sustained in a fall at the end of the gruelling second leg through the Southern Ocean.

Dalton has led the round-the-world fleet into Auckland, his home port, on the last two Whitbread occasions. Similarly, another local, Tyco's skipper Kevin Shoebridge, who sailed as watch leader with Dalton on both of those occasions as well as with Peter Blake when he won all six legs of the round-the-world race in 1989-90, will be motivated to reach his home town ahead after Tyco broke down at the start of the second stage and had to be shipped to Sydney.

"It's obviously a big leg for us, especially after the disappointment of the last one – so we need to have a blinder, basically," Shoebridge said. "We're not looking at it so much as an eight- or nine- day leg, but rather a three-day leg to start with, and putting a lot of focus and effort into trying to get into Hobart in reasonable shape."

From Hobart, the stretch across the Tasman Sea to mainland New Zealand should be a straightforward downwind blast, with the northern tip of New Zealand and the passage south to Auckland providing the final tactical test in this 2,050-mile leg. The leaders are expected into Auckland on 4 January.

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