Sailing: Danger proves the lure as Miller tests superyacht

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The Independent Online
HI-TECH YACHTS have been preening themselves in Sydney Harbour this week as they prepare to do battle in the annual Sydney-Hobart Race - which always attracts a handful of glory hunters eager to win one of the world's toughest races. But after last year's fatal race, which was hit by a freak storm that killed six sailors, sank five boats and saw 56 sailors winched to safety by rescue helicopters, it seems the race's notoriety has proven even more alluring.

This year's 630-nautical mile race, that starts on 26 December, will see some of the world's biggest and fastest yachts sail out of Sydney and head south to Hobart. Sailing as a demonstration entry will be the super-yacht Mari-Cha III, a 44.5-metre, carbon-fibre ketch whose mast barely fits under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The owner, billionaire Bob Miller, has decided to test the yacht in the race before 2000 when there will be a Superyacht Division. The A$40m (pounds 16m) Mari-Cha III, outfitted like a luxury five-star hotel rather than a stripped- down racing yacht, set a monohull transatlantic record of nine days in 1998.

"If we have a shot at the Sydney-Hobart record we will go for it. With a steady beam reach we could get to Hobart well inside two days," Miller said. The race record of two days 14 hours seven minutes and 10 seconds was set by the maxi Morning Glory in 1996.

The Dutch entry Nokia, a round the world racer, has been allowed to race under Whitbread 60 class rules, which will allow the boat to use water ballast equivalent to the weight of 30 crew over the windward rail for stabilisation in strong winds.

"Although we are smaller than the big maxis we carry a big rig and will be sailing under Whitbread 60 rules," co-skipper Michael Spies said. "That allows us to pump up to 2,500 litres (550 gallons) of water ballast in and out of the boat, and from port to starboard tanks when tacking to windward. That can mean having an extra 2,500kg of weight to windward or 30 guys on the weather rail - a huge advantage."

If the wind is on the beam, Nokia has a good chance of snatching honours. But the Sydney-Hobart is notorious for fickle conditions, ranging from terrifying storms to dead calm.

The real favourites are the big maxis. Australian entry Brindabella, which won line honours in 1997 and came second in 1998, has had an impressive season and starts as favourite. Second favourite is Wild Thing, an Australian yacht designed specifically for the Hobart race.

Launched a month ago and designed by the former America's Cup skipper Iain Murray, the pocket maxi Bumblebee V is also considered a real contender. But for its American owner, John Kahlbetzer, the thrill of sailing Bumblebee V to Hobart is in doubt after an accident while racing off Sydney Heads on Monday. In squally conditions, Kahlbetzer was thrown across the boat, headbutting a winch, to leave a gaping head wound.

The 1999 Sydney-Hobart fleet is down to 82 boats from the 115 that set sail last year, with many sailors preferring to celebrate the New Year on the tranquil Sydney Harbour.

"What we have lost in numbers we have gained in quality. It is the best [fleet] in some years," said Hugo van Kretschmar, commodore of the race organiser, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia.

In Auckland, Dennis Conner sold a spare place on his America's Cup boat, Stars & Stripes, for US$98,100 (pounds 61,000) through an Internet auction. Now Paul Cayard and his AmericaOne team are trying the same novel fund- raising approach. But so far the Cayard name does not seem to have quite the same cash value as Conner. With less than 24 hours until the bidding closes, the price yesterday was just US$45,100 for the privilege of taking the "17th man" position on Cayard's boat.

The America's Cup rules allow for a crew of 16 sailors and one passenger, known as the "17th man", who rides in the back of the boat. The 17th man must be approved by the event organisers as someone who cannot contribute to the sailing of the boat, and during the actual race is not allowed to speak to the crew.

The AmericaOne auction is being conducted by one of the new sponsors recently signed by AmericaOne, the internet portal company Lycos.

The team spokesperson, Gina von Esmarch, confirmed that bidding opened at US$40,000 on December 14, and had reached US$45,100, with bidding due to close in New York last night.

The package includes business class airfares and luxury hotel accommodation, and the winner gets a one-race ride on AmericaOne during the Louis Vuitton Cup semi-finals.