“It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you come from, whether you are on a big boat or a small boat, whether you are on your first race or your 39th, in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race everyone is equal,” said Matt Allen, Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia at the official launch of the 2007 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

Well, perhaps in a fleet of 90 yachts ranging in size from 33 to 90 feet in length, some are more equal than others, but there is little doubt that, as a mental and physical challenge, this race is, indeed, a real equaliser.

Yachts in this year’s race (including 34 first-timers) will be representing seven states and territories across Australia, with nine yachts from overseas, including a record-breaking six entrants from the UK – and the race’s first-ever Mexican entry, the Beneteau 40.7 Iataia.

Inevitably, much of the general public and media’s focus will centre on the eye-catching supermaxis at the front of the fleet and this year will not disappoint, with four of them squaring up for what promises to be a line honours battle royale.

Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats XI, just back from a surprise dismasting in the Med, will be sporting a new rig and looking to see off some serious competition to take out her third consecutive line honours win in this race.

Among those supermaxi skippers determined to foil a Wild Oats hat trick will be Grant Wharington, returning once more with Skandia; New Zealanders Bill Buckley and Ross Field, seeking to make up for last year’s dismasting of Maximus on the first night at sea; and Mike Slade with his innovative ICAP Leopard of London, line honours winner of this year’s rugged Rolex Fastnet Race.

For those who believe that size doesn’t always matter, there will be plenty to watch for across the fleet and in each division there will be the usual race-within-a-race as One Design classes and old rivals in the IRC and PHS divisions seek to better each other.

In the increasingly popular Sydney 38 class, 11 yachts will race boat-for-boat to the finish. Among their number will be race veteran Lou Abrahams’ Challenge. The lure of this race is strong and it appears Abrahams could not resist another tilt at Bass Strait, entering Challenge again despite indicating that last year’s race (his 44th) was likely to be his last.

A number of high-profile veterans, celebrities and less well-known stalwarts return this year, with Syd Fischer on his 39th race entering a new Ragamuffin, one of three TP52 designs heading across Bass Strait, while Yendys, this year’s overall IRC handicap winner of Hamilton Island Race Week, will return with owner Geoff Ross looking to repeat his ‘99 race win. Former Wallaby test prop, Bill Young will be testing his sea legs, joining skipper David Witt on the Volvo 60 George Gregan Foundation.

It seems this race has a habit of generating a heroic attitude to any hint of defeat; witness Michele Colenso, who skippered Cappriccio of Rhu to a Cruising Division win last year whilst undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. She returns, despite having sworn that once was enough. Likewise, Mike Freebairn is back again, this time with Spirit of Koomooloo, purchased barely three months after the original classic Koomooloo sank from under him and his crew in last year’s race.

Just getting to the start of a Sydney Hobart is a challenge in itself; boat preparation, crew selection, rule conformance and simply avoiding boat damage in the lead-up races and qualifying passages all make the arrival at the start line a cause for quiet relief in itself.

Unhappily, Stephen Ainsworth’s elegant and successful 60 footer, Loki will not only fail to make the start line of this year’s race, but will, in all likelihood, never return to Australian shores after losing her rudder on the stormy first night of the Rolex Middle Sea Race.

Nor is the drama confined to the lead-up or the race itself. Last year, Alex Whitworth and Peter Crozier made history with the diminutive 33-foot Berrimilla safely completing a two-handed circumnavigation of the world by entering and finishing the 2006 Sydney Hobart; ironically, it was on their return to Sydney after the race that they were caught in a vicious storm in Bass Strait and dismasted. Undaunted, Whitworth is back for this year’s race.

But in the end, it’s all about that equalising ordeal and few know that better than the crew of Mexico’s Iataia, who have taken a year’s preparation and six months sailing to travel here for the race.

Skipper, Marc Rosenberg knows little about the race, but reflects an attitude common amongst ocean racers: “We have never heard anything good about the weather on this race; nothing good at all, but no matter, we’re here for the challenge.”

– Crosbie Lorimer