5 Things to Know about the Sydney to Hobart race

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SYDNEY (AP) -- The Sydney to Hobart race begins Thursday when the yachts make their way out of Sydney Harbour through hundreds of spectator crafts and with thousands watching from the shore. Here are five things to know about the annual "bluewater classic," which was first held in 1945:

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THE FLEET: Ninety-four yachts are entered, including 12 boats from the Clipper Round the World Yacht race. The Sydney to Hobart competition is the sixth race of their series. The 70-foot Clipper fleet has boats representing six continents and has drawn crews from 42 nations.

Vicky Ellis of England will be at the helm of the yacht Switzerland. She's the only female skipper in the Clipper race and one of two in the Sydney to Hobart, the other being Stephane Howarth on the Sydney 38 Mille Sabord. The pair will compete for the Jane Tate Memorial Trophy for first female skipper to cross the line.

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THE ROUTE: The race is 723 miles. Once out of Sydney Harbour between North and South Head, the fleet moves into the Coral Sea and south along the New South Wales state coast. From there, it gets tricky as the yachts make their way across the often treacherous Bass Strait toward the island state of Tasmania. The final portion of the race sees the fleet move up the Derwent River and to Constitution Dock in Hobart, the state capital.

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THE FORECAST: Five days ago, the weather office was predicting favorable winds, raising the possibility of a race record. But the northeasterly breezes are now not expected to last long enough to help the fleet to a speedy finish. And there is expected to be at least one period of light breeze. Achange late on Saturday could result in the smaller and slower boats getting hit by strong winds. In 1998, six sailors died, five boats sank and only 44 of 115 starting yachts reached Hobart after gale-force winds hit the fleet.

"The forecasts are very confusing I can tell you," said Ragamuffin skipper Syd Fischer, who is 86. "We use the overseas information and it's quite different to the local."

Even the specialists are finding it hard to pin down the forecast. "Just when you thought the outlook was settling, the latest computer models for the weather have caused a total rethink for the whole race," yachting meteorologist Roger Badham said.

"It's going to be a very, very tricky race," added Mark Richards, skipper of defending champion and race record holder Wild Oats XI.

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THE FAVORITES: The 100-foot super maxis, including Wild Oats XI, Perpetual Loyal and Ragamuffin, are favored with Wild Thing, which wasn't able to compete in last year's race because of an administrative error -- the yacht's entry didn't officially arrive in time. Wild Thing skipper Grant Wharington believes his yacht has the advantage under current weather forecasts because it is lighter than the other super maxis.

"The scenario for us is pretty much perfect," Wharington said. "It's 10 years since we won line honors, we'd love to think it could be our year to be able to win it overall. We've essentially got all new sails and all new gear on the boat and the boat is in absolutely excellent condition."

Perpetual Loyal skipper Anthony Bell has flown in American navigator Stan Honey, who masterminded the 2011 line honors win of Bell's previous boat. Another crew member on Bell's yacht this year is 2012 London Olympics laser gold medalist Tom Slingsby, the Australian who was strategist on the winning Team Oracle USA boat at this year's America's Cup.

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THE RECORDS: Race record: Wild Oats XI: 1 day, 18 hours, 23 minutes, 12 seconds in 2012 when it also won handicap honors. Slowest finisher: Wayfarer: 11 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes in 1945. Closest finish: Condor of Bermuda beat Apollo by seven seconds in 1982; Most races by a boat: Phillip's Foote Witchdoctor and Bacardi, both 27; Largest fleet: 371 in 1994. Most line honors: Morna/Kurrewa IV -- 7.