Rookie Kiwi crew up for high seas battle

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 05:00 26/12/2012

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Sydney-to-Hobart veteran Ray Haslar is confident his crew of offshore-racing rookies are undaunted at the prospect of tackling the legendary blue-water classic today for the first time - although plain sailing will not translate to success.

''It's going to be an easy race,'' said Haslar - an assessment that may be music to the ears of seven of nine yachties aboard the Reichel/Pugh 42 Rikki.

Unless earlier weather forecasts are inaccurate, the Kiwi boats among the 77-strong fleet should have a relatively relaxed journey during the 628 nautical miles from Sydney Harbour's Shark Island start line to Constitution Dock on Hobart's waterfronT.

But, although Haslar's 15th attempt at the Sydney-Hobart should be relatively sedate, the tradeoff is an overall win on handicap is probably out of the question.

''We'll start on the wind, 15-18 knots, for the first four or five hours. Then it swings around and goes into a northerly that'll take us halfway down the Tassie coast,'' he said before tucking into Christmas dinner.

''From there it'll go to the south and we'll have to be on the wind again for the last half of Tasmania [coast].''

Haslar was the navigator when Auckland-based Pathfinder took handicap honours in 1971 but he was distancing himself from the prospect of another celebration.

''First you have to win your division and then you have a chance to be overall. I don't even consider that; it's a lottery,'' he said.

''It looks like the big boats could be round Tasman Island (the turning mark at the bottom of Tasmania) and heading towards the Derwent before they get head winds. They'll bolt away from us and we'll be struggling tacking up wind.''

Haslar's goal was to win division two, where the boats range from 12 to 14 metres.

The Christchurch-built Rikki faces stiff competition from Australian entries AFR Midnight Rambler, Occasional Coarse Language Too and Chutzpah.

''We're a good all-round boat and we're going to get all-round conditions but there's some top boats in our division and we're relatively new,'' he said.

''We also owe most of these boats time. We have to beat them and we have to beat them by a reasonable distance to get them on handicap.''

Haslar and navigator Andrew Shields are the only crew with Sydney-Hobart experience but the 69-year-old skipper from Kerikeri was content with their buildup since they assembled at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia.

''We've been training every day and they're ready to 'bring it on'. The boys are confident,'' said Haslar, who expects to cross the finish line early on Saturday at the latest.

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London 2012 yachting silver medallist Blair Tuke is the highest-profile Sydney-Hobart debutant on Rikki and illustrated the relaxed approach to the newcomers' biggest test.

Familiar with Sydney Harbour, because he prepared for the Olympics with Australia's eventual 49er champions Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, Tuke was laidback about venturing further afield.

''I know the harbour quite well around Rose Bay and Mosman. I know my way out to the heads. Then you turn right and pass about 13 lighthouses or something,'' he said, smiling.

Akatea, a Cookson 50 out of Auckland's Royal Akarana Yacht Club, is in division one and also capable of making waves, according to crew member and owner's son Wade Lewis.

''Our boat's the same as Jazz, a proven racer [which finished fourth overall last year and second in 2010] but we don't have a swing keel,'' he said.

''We're looking to mix it with the 50s. If the conditions work out in our favour for our division, we should be up there, or thereabouts.''

The fleet in the 68th edition of the race, the smallest since 2006, is headed by supermaxis Ragamuffin Loyal - the defending line honours champion and five-time winner Wild Oats XI. 

- Fairfax Media

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