Ragamuffin faces Chivas Racing in first clash of the super maxis in Asia
Syd Fischer's Ragamuffin faces Chivas Racing in what is being billed as the clash of the super maxis in the first matchup of its kind in Asia
It is being billed as the first super maxi clash in Asia and one that Geoff Hill, master and commander of the Audi Hong Kong to Vietnam Race, believes will raise the profile of yacht racing to unprecedented heights.
The clash of the titans - Chivas Racing and Ragamuffin - will put an entirely new light on the biennial 656-nautical mile downwind dash from Hong Kong to Nha Trang in Vietnam, starting on Thursday.
Seventeen boats, almost double the number of nine that took part in the 2011 edition, have entered the race with line honours expected to be a duel between the two 90-footers. Hill, who will be on Ragamuffin, is more excited by the fact that the 2013 race will be almost a coming-of-age for Hong Kong sailing.
"This is the biggest offshore race in Asia and, with the two Maxis competing, it is bound to lift the whole stature of the race globally," said Hill, chairman of the RHKYC's race committee and intrepid sailor.
"For Hong Kong, it is our premier offshore race, the only offshore race in Asia, which is nearly 700 miles and a category one event. It is truly a world-class race and every time it continues to grow in stature," said Hill. "And the fact that we have two Maxis competing for the first time will increase interest, especially from Australia."
The evidence is plain to see. For the first time, Australia's most experienced and well-known sailor, 86-year-old Syd Fischer, will take part in the race. The five-time America's Cup sailor and owner of Ragamuffin says he is looking forward to the challenge.
"One of the reasons I'm taking part is because of Geoff, but I also like a challenge. I haven't done this race before and I like to try out new races," says Fischer. "I'm 86 and I think I'm lucky to still be able to race. I stay with the old saying, 'if you don't use it you lose it' so I may as well keep using it."
With the talismanic figure of Fischer - often described as Australia's most successful offshore sailor - on board, Ragamuffin will clearly be among the favourites to take line honours. The 90-footer, formerly known as Genuine Risk, has undergone a full refit including sails, hydraulics and electrics in Australia. It arrived in Hong Kong on Friday not without adventure, having hit a whale off the New South Wales coast a fortnight ago.
Apart from Hill, Fischer will have with him the majority of the crew who sailed the Sydney to Hobart Race last December. The crew includes one of Britain's most successful sailors, Ian Walker, skipper of Volvo Ocean racing Team Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, who also has two Olympic silver medals to his name. Also on board is David Witt, who previously ran Grant Wharington's Skandia, which holds the race record of 43 hours, 45 minutes and 41 seconds set in 2004.
Witt said: "I believe this is the best ocean race in the world to do and I'm looking forward to fast sailing, breaking the record and, most importantly, sailing with a legend like Syd again. He is a global icon in sailing and to still be seriously competing at 86 is a true inspiration to us all. He is also a great bloke."
In her previous incarnation as Genuine Risk, Ragamuffin won line honours in last year's Rolex China Sea Race and is being hailed as the prerace favourite, especially with such an illustrious crew on board. But rival Super Maxi Chivas Racing (formerly Audi Ultra) will be keen to prove everyone wrong and is bound to be a handful as it attempts to defend its line honours won in 2011.
With two-time world champion Ludde Ingvall at the helm, Chivas Racing is keen for another crack at breaking the race record, which it came so close to doing two years ago, falling short by just an hour. And with Ragamuffin as a threat, the battle lines are set.
"I believe it is the first time that two Super Maxis will do battle in Asia, let alone in this race. It is very exciting to be part of something that is simply historic," said Ingvall, who will be taking part for the second time. "Both boats can break the record weather permitting, but for us the main objective is to try to win line honours and if a record is broken, great."
The Finnish-born Australian resident came agonisingly close to setting a new time for this odyssey in 2011 reaching the halfway mark in only 16 hours. But then the weather gods played a cruel trick with the winds dying, putting paid to his hopes.
"We were three to four hours ahead of the record as we came in for the final run for the finish line, but then the wind simply stopped. The fan turned off and we stopped. It was very frustrating," Ingvall said.
Boosted by winning the recent Fremantle to Bali Race, Ingvall is hopeful for a double delight but will be keeping a weather eye out for Ragamuffin. "We are both exactly the same length and handicap, so it will be a tough match. It is bound to be exciting taking into account that this is simply one of the best downwind races in the world. I believe that this race will grow, especially as it is masterfully organised and run by the RHKYC," he added.
A part of the China Coast Race Week, starting with this weekend's China Coast Regatta, which ends tomorrow, the offshore race will be the icing on the cake for Anthony Day, RHKYC's rear commodore (sailing). With one of the biggest fleets to sail under his watch, Day is confident bigger things are in the wind.
"This is one of the most attractive races in Asia, simply because it is enjoyable with the wind behind you. It is a fast race and all the boats will be surfing it. I expect this race to attract more attention simply because lots of people love taking part in a warm weather race," says Day, who will be on board Freefire.
"The fact that we have three divisions and it being a category one race makes it even more attractive and that can been seen by the quality of sailors we have attracted this year. Apart from Corinthian crews, we have also got a large number of pros on board," he said.
While the smart money may be on Ragamuffin and Chivas Racing, multi-hull Mach2 is a dark horse that seasoned sailors say can win on handicap. Built just four months ago in the shipyards of Zhuhai, Raphael Blot's cruising catamaran is the only multi-hull taking part in the race. It is so new that even owner Blot is unsure how it will perform.
"I don't know how it will race in strong winds," said Blot. The retired French banker, who is taking part for the first time in this race, decided to go for a catamaran as he was tired of "living at 35 degrees out at sea" and to please his wife who got panic attacks every time that happened in the past. Despite a pure downwind race being less than ideal for his catamaran, Blot is confident of causing a few ripples among the rest of the fleet.
"I hope to finish before some of the big names in the mono-hulls so as to show that a cruising catamaran designed for speed with four cabins and three showers plus air-conditioning, and all other comforts can go as fast as some stripped out monohull," Blot said.
Another boat eyeing overall honours is Red Kite II. It has a fantastic pedigree - with fellow competitor Freefire, it is one of only two boats to win the San Fernando Race twice in a row on IRC handicap - having taken part in 226 races, including 137 wins and top-three finishes of 90 per cent.
At just 35 feet, it is a David rather than a Goliath like Ragamuffin, but skipper Anthony Root relishes the prospect of taking on the biggies.
"We have a reputation of being a giant killer having beaten bigger boats in both the 2009 and 2011 San Fernando races. But a small boat like ours is at a disadvantage in these wind conditions where it is all about being able to surf and plane. Yet, we are approaching the event like any other - with a goal to win overall," Root said.
It will be the first time that Root is taking part in this race, but if an 86-year-old Fischer is up for this challenge, why not others way younger? But perhaps Fischer has a secret weapon - the name of his boat. "I name all my boats Ragamuffin and this one is probably the tenth in the line. Why? Simply because it means a playful kid and I try to live up to that name every day."