Foul forecast but ‘elements are there for British win’

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Southerly buster! The combination of bravado and hushed respect at the very mention of the words running around Rushcutters Bay has grown in the last few days ahead of the southern hemisphere’s most gruelling ocean yacht race.

A combination of storms and big seas in 1998 scattered large yachts and small. It snatched the lives of six, including a member of Britain’s Olympic sailing squad, Glyn Charles. It sparked a rescue operation reminiscent of the one needed in the 1979 Fastnet Race, in which 15 competitors died, and brought home to many, both ashore and in yachts, the scale of the challenge.

As Britain wakes on Boxing Day also looking in Australia to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the 87 Hobart entries will be heading south down the east coast in the 66th annual 628-mile Rolex Sydney to Hobart Race.

The forecasts have been clear; once out of the sunny protection of Sydney Harbour Heads, expect the breeze to become more malevolent, on the nose, presenting an upwind slog into 25-knot southerlies. An increase to 40 knots on the nose crossing the Bass Strait, which separates Australia from Tasmamia, is predicted.

The race starts inside the enormous harbour, the shores and headlands crowded by thousands banishing any threats of a Christmas hangover with chilly bins of grog to wash down picnics and full-blown barbies.

Whether they understand it or not, it is a great day out watching mainly fellow-Aussies but also lots of international yachties, including Poms, step out on the high wire.

The Poms range, many years ago, from Sir Edward Heath, who, before becoming prime minister, won the race in 1969 in Morning Cloud to, this year, a current nautical knight, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.

Part of the thrill is knowing that, whatever the crews may think they know about the ‘QLD’ when they reach the other end –that stands for quiet little drink and it is neither quiet nor little – there is a lot of unknown along the way.

Not least, how changes in the weather can shuffle the fortunes of a fleet of yachts that range in size from 36 to 100 feet. The record of 42 hours and 40 minutes was set by Bob Oatley’s 100-foot Wild Oats in 2005.

Ian Burns, who this year co-navigates Oats with Adrienne Cahalan and is joined by his previous naval architect partner Iain Murray, now boss of America’s Cup Race Management, does not think it will be lowered. Fair winds, not foul, are needed for fast runs.

Carrying the British flag is the rather private Swede, Niklas Zennstrom, one of the founders of the very well known Skype internet phone and messaging system.

His 72-footer Rán looked good last year until a late rush of 40-footers left him sixth overall. He is the current holder of the Fastnet overall winner trophy in 2009, and the 2010 Maxi world champion.

His skipper, Tim Powell, is British, his navigator, Steve Hayles, is British and, flying away from Abu Dhabi, where he is skipper of that country’s Volvo round the world race entry, is Britain’s double Olympic silver medallist Ian Walker to be tactician.

Walker has not had half the problems of making it to Sydney as the rest of the big freeze Europeans, and he has also been skipper of the Sino-Irish Green Dragon team in the last Volvo.

Powell was only 22 when part of the Dolphin and Youth team which contested the Volvo pro-genitor Whitbread Race in 1989, and leads a crew of 20 that contains the core of a 2011 Audi MedCup campaign in a 52-foot race boat.

“This is a big operation,” he says. “We have moded our training to take account of the predicted conditions but a weather forecast like this definitely gives you butterflies.

“It’s a big test and you have to find the fine line between pushing the boat hard, but not too far. It’s an ordeal for the crew and, in some ways, a lot harder than a 7,000-mile Volvo leg, where you can settle down.

“But we are going into the race confidently. We have a great boat and a great crew. If we sail sensibly, all the elements are there to win.”