Unevenly matched local ocean racers set off today for Musket Cove resort.

By a happy coincidence I am re-reading (for about the umpteenth time) Johnny Wray's delightful classic Kiwi tale, South Sea Vagabonds.

For those not familiar with this magnificent book, it describes how, in the early 1930s, Wray, barely out of his teens, designed, built and then extensively sailed his robust little Ngataki up to the Pacific Islands (and later across the Tasman).

The reason this strikes me as fortuitous is that a group of like-minded young sailors (and some not-so-young) are today setting off on their own Islands-bound adventure.

Just off the Westhaven breakwater (certainly close enough to provide good viewing for those interested), a very varied fleet of six yachts will, at midday, begin the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron's Auckland to Musket Cove Ocean Race. The race, 1150 nautical miles in length, will no doubt present the contenders with the traditional mix of hair-raisingly wild offshore sailing, frustrating light airs and just about everything in between.


Hoping that the winds will remain reasonably fresh is the undisputed line honours favourite, TeamVodafoneSailing. Dwarfing its fellow competitors the giant red Orma60 trimaran measures an impressive 18.3m in length - and is, literally, just as beamy as it is long.

The race to Musket Cove will be the big tri's third ocean race out of Auckland and its second to the Fijian resort. In 2011, unwelcome light airs meant the colourful speedster took a longer than expected 103 hours, 20 minutes and 57 seconds to complete the race; skipper Simon Hull and his crew (Stu "Disco" Mackinven, Rod Chave, Nude Guy Hewson, Paddy O'Reily, Chris Smith, Scotty Simpson, Andy "Twinkle Toes" Potter, and Harry Hull) will be hoping for a substantially faster time this year.

However, they may be hampered by a lack of preparation. TeamVodafoneSailing was dismasted in March and, although she has been rerigged, the delayed arrival of a vital stay has meant very limited shakedown time.The large tri is due for a major overall, her first in three years of hard sailing, upon her return from Fiji. Hull says the crew will race, "have a few days R&R", bring the boat home and then begin the process of getting her race ready for the spring season.

The real competition will be among the five other serious contenders. Of those, the Martin 55 Equilibrium is one of the favourites.

Built by Lloyd Stevenson Boatbuilders in East Tamaki, Equilibrium is owned and skippered by Graham Matthews and was designed by Botin & Carkeek, the designers behind international grand prix racers such as Emirates Team New Zealand's highly successful TP52.

Although she has more emphasis on cruising comfort than some of the other entrants, Equilibrium was still designed with racing very much in mind. With twin rudders and boasting 16.8m of waterline length, it is the longest monohull in the race and should have an edge, especially in heavy upwind conditions. Joining Matthews on board are Rob Bassett, owner of Wired; Christian Stimson, designer of the 2003 America's Cup contender GBR Challenge and Ross Vickers.

V5 owner and skipper David Nathan is a vastly experienced ocean racer and his Transpac 52 design has some pretty impressive credentials too. In the last 12 months, the other race favourite has won the Auckland to Noumea Race on line and handicap, the Coastal Classic on line, and taken out the RNZYS Club Championships.

For the Musket Cove race the generous Nathan has given several young and enthusiastic crew the chance to join his team of regulars. His crew will include Olympic silver medallist Blair Tuke, Volvo Ocean Race veteran Justin Ferris, Mike Boyd and navigator and tactician Wayne Mills.

Although it is probably not their intention, the Lodge family entrant, Wildcard will be upholding another great Kiwi ocean racing tradition. The 15.2m cruiser racer, designed by Carl Schumacher, was built by the family in their shed in Kerikeri and three generations of the family will be on board for the race to Fiji.

The crew of eight will include grandfather Ray Lodge, now 80; two of his sons, Andrew and Michael, and Michael's 21-year-old son. Ray, Michael and Andrew already have eight transtasman crossings to their credit.

Quintin Fowler's Outrageous Fortune is another with plenty of ocean miles under her keel. In the last 4 years, Fowler and his crew have raced the Philippe Briand-designed First 45 from Auckland to Fiji, Auckland to Noumea and from Sydney to Hobart.

They have also competed in hundreds of club races in and around Auckland. Although line honours are not a realistic prospect, Fowler and his long term crew are aiming for a handicap win based on a solid upwind effort.

The 10.5m Elliot design Squealer is owned by a syndicate of eight sailors from Tauranga, all of whom are realising their dream of racing offshore. The Brian Kent-skippered Squealer is the smallest boat in the fleet, has enjoyed an extensive makeover and is reportedly in excellent shape.

Also on the Musket Cove start line, albeit a few days earlier, was the 17m Denis Ganley cruiser, Vision. Skippered by Steve Mair, Vision is taking part primarily to soak up the offshore sailing experience.

Ocean Race
Auckland to Musket Cove

Start: Off Westhaven, today at 12 noon
Finish: Musket Cove, Malolo Lailai Island, Fiji
Follow progress: www.rnzys.org.nz