Kurt Arrigo / Rolex

Niklas Zennström on the Hobart race

The great and the good gathering for the Boxing Day run south

Thursday December 16th 2010, Author: Giles Pearman, Location: Australia

It is hard to imagine that a race conceived some 65 years ago by a bunch of adventurous yachtsmen in a Sydney yacht club, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, would become one of the world’s most famous and challenging ocean races: the Rolex Sydney Hobart. Today, the race ranks among the top headline grabbing events of the year and kicks off on Boxing Day each year.

The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race draws high-profile entrants from tycoons and media moguls to Internet and telecom entrepreneurs and this year’s race is proving to be no exception. The race also attracts competitors from around the globe. The 2010 edition will see competitors from the US, UK, Russia, Italy and France.

One high-profile, international entrant is Niklas Zennström, co-founder of the Internet telephony company Skype, who will be sailing on his 72ft mini maxi Ràn. Even before becoming a successful entrepreneur, Zennström has always been a keen sailor. He started sailing at the age of seven and as a teenager raced dinghies in his native Sweden. However, as the founder and CEO of fast growing tech companies that “took up all his time,” sailing was often put aside. It was not until after the sale of Skype that Zennström took up racing once more: “Sailing has always been a big passion of mine. So in 2005, I decided to take the time to sail again,” says the mild mannered sailor/entrepreneur. And since his return to the water, Zennström’s been very successful, bagging prestigious trophies like the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race and the 2010 Mini Maxi Rolex World Championship. Last year, he was also a contender in the Rolex Sydney Hobart, placing in the top ten.

Despite the considerable distance involved in shipping the boat from the Mediterranean, Ràn will be back on the Rolex Sydney Hobart start line for a second go round. Asked why he is attracted to this race, the savvy, 44-year old Swede replied, “It’s one of the famous or infamous offshore races that one just has to do.” He adds, “Besides it's really nice to come down to Sydney this time of year.”

Last year, Ràn seemed to shoot out of Sydney Harbour and was tipped to win the Rolex Sydney Hobart early on. However, the yacht encountered problems as the race progressed and finally ended up in sixth place overall. Still, it was not a bad result for Ràn, considering that it was her first time participating in the famously challenging race. As Zennström sees it: “We sailed very well last year. We won the big racing class, so we did what we could.”

As to why the boat lost her position later in the race, Zennström said, “We got beaten by two Beneteau 40-foot production boats. That’s offshore handicap racing for you—fast and slow boats sail differently in different conditions. Last year turned out to be a small boat race.”

In last year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart, the cargo ship carrying Zennström's Judel-Vrolijk 72 faced delays and arrived just in time for the race. That meant Ràn’s crew did not have a lot of time to prepare for the race. “This year is different,” says Zennström, “We won’t be doing any pre-Hobart racing but will focus on preparing the boat for the offshore race.”

Besides Zennström’s hunger for competition and adventure - and as if to prove he is just as colourful on the sea as he is out of the boardroom - he does what few married yachtsmen would ever contemplate: he sails with his wife. “Catherine rarely misses a race, specifically the offshores. She enjoys it very much. I think the fact that we race as a couple adds to the team spirit.”

When asked if he has any predictions for the 2010 Rolex Sydney Hobart, Zennström reflects for a moment and then says, “If it turns out to be a big boat race, we will fight extremely hard to win overall. But it also just might be a 40-footer from the 1970s that wins— that’s the beauty of this race.”

While most competitors are in the final stages of preparing their boats for the Boxing Day start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart, Frenchman Jacques Pelletier is biting his nails. Facing a similar situation that plagued Niklas Zennström and his team last year, Pelletier’s boat, L’Ange de Milon has been seriously delayed by shipping complications.

The ETA, Pelletier has now been told, is 21 December. Unfortunately, the X-43 yacht will be offloaded in Newcastle, and then has a 12-hour sail to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia docks, and that is after the boat has been reassembled.

The late arrival will give Pelletier and his French crew only three days to get L’Ange de Milon ready for one of the sailing calendar's most demanding offshore races. “Originally I had thought we could slip the boat and put on some antifouling,” Pelletier says. “Now I think that will be impossible.”

While the French team sorts out the logistics of getting their boat to the starting line, the US entry Dawn Star is set to go, having arrived in Australia with plenty of time to prepare, following a delivery from San Diego, CA, to Australia in February. Dawn Star is a Baltic 46 co-skippered by the only father and son team in this year’s race. Bill and William Hubbard are keen sailors and competitors racing side by side in numerous competitions around the world.

The elder Hubbard is 76, and his son William is 26 years old. “Racing in the Rolex Sydney Hobart has been a life long dream for us,” says William. The two New Yorkers are looking forward to the challenge. When asked if he is prepared for the sometimes-treacherous conditions that the race can belt out, William says, “We’re ready and think we’ll be able to handle whatever is thrown at us.” Their ten-man crew is composed of three Americans, six British, and one Canadian.

The Swan 68, Tatania of Cowes (GBR), is notable for two reasons: the yacht was sailed 17,000 nautical miles from Newport, Rhode Island to reach Sydney in time for the 26 December start. Sailing onboard will be Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, competing in his first Rolex Sydney Hobart. In 1969, Sir Robin became the first person to sail single-handed, non-stop around the world. He also won the Jules Verne Trophy in 1994 for the fastest circumnavigation of the world, co-skippering with Sir Peter Blake on ENZA New Zealand. Still an active international big boat racer, Knox-Johnston will join owner Richard Dobbs, Olympic medallist Mark Covell, and British match racer/commentator Andy Green. The boat, formerly Chippewa, was successfully campaigned throughout the USA, Caribbean and Europe.

A fleet of 90 yachts will compete in this year's race, which starts at 1300 AEDT, 26 December 2010. The Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet will include six international entries from the USA, UK, Italy, France, and Russia, as well as every Australian state.

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