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Leeds sailor’s Pacific challenge

SAILOR Heather Thomas is hoping to follow in the wake of famous yachtswomen by taking on the world’s most treacherous seas.

The 18-year-old from Otley was bitten by the sailing bug on a family sailing holiday to Greece when she was seven.

She joined Otley Sailing Club, spending every spare hour and weekend on the club’s Weston Water, a flooded gravel pit, where she quickly mastered the basics of handling smaller craft.

But the A-level student at Otley’s Prince Henry’s Grammar School is taking her hobby to a new level with a tilt for a place aboard an ocean racing yacht.

She has reached a shortlist of two to take part in a 5,500-mile, month-long journey from China to the United States, crossing the world’s largest ocean as part of the Clipper Round the World race.

If she gets the place, it will be reward for the hard hours sailing off the coast of England, Scotland and Ireland.

In March she will travel to Clipper Race HQ in Gosport, Hampshire for a training assessment to determine who gets the place.

She is up against a 19-year-old man from London.

Yesterday she admitted that sailing solo around the world is her ultimate dream.

“It’s an expensive thing to do, but if I get the chance, I would want to do it – that’s my dream.”

In the meantime she is hoping to get her A-levels and then a job as a yacht’s bosun in charge of the equipment and engine.

Asked why she enjoys sailing, she said it was the “feeling of freedom” which came from being out on the water, often alone.

Her father, Matt, said his daughter had shown great skill on the water.

“Heather has taken to sailing like a duck to water. All she wants is to be around boats and wants to make a career out of it.”

He said: “The Pacific is a real adventure, with the worst of the weather that can be thrown at you. It’s about battling against the elements and I have no doubt that Heather is fully up to the job – I have no worries about her on that score. She has experience on large boats.”

The family’s love of sailing goes back 43 years when Mr Thomas’ father Eric built his own boat.

Heather had enjoyed her first sailing experience as her grandfather had his final trip, he said.

“He (his father) invited me and my family to sail on a yacht in Greece. There was a little trepidation as I thought my girls would hate it but everyone enjoyed it. My dad had had a stroke and wanted to experience sailing one last time.”

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Comanche is sailing's new Goliath

Wild Oats XI tactician Iain Murray says his vastly successful boat looks like David compared to the Goliath of Comanche, the imposing new super maxi it will race against for the first time on Tuesday.

Two of the fancied Sydney to Hobart line honours contenders will be among the fleet of 15 contesting the annual Big Boat Challenge on Sydney Harbour.

They have been neighbours at Woolwich Dock since Comanche arrived in Sydney from the United States just over a week ago.

The Big Boat Challenge represents the racing debut of Comanche, which was only recently launched.

While no one would ever consider seven-time Sydney to Hobart line honours winner Wild Oats XI small, her wide-bodied 100-foot rival has made an instant impression.

“It’s sort of like a David and Goliath thing a little bit,” Murray told AAP on Monday.

“You’ve only got to go and look at the two boats and go `wow, are they racing each other?’

“She looks massive compared to us.

“She’s bigger, she’s got a lot bigger sail, she’s much more powerful.

“We’re not going to know really until the Hobart race her strengths and weaknesses.”

With his boat untested in competition, Comanche skipper Ken Read wasn’t about to make any declarations about beating Wild Oats XI.

“Until they get knocked off, they are by far and away the queen of the ball,” Read told AAP.

“We have all the respect in the world for those guys and they are it until somebody knocks them off.”

Murray stressed the Big Boat Challenge, which Wild Oats XI has won seven times, was not a real form guide to the much longer offshore marathon that is the Sydney to Hobart.

Read emphasised his boat wasn’t really suited to Tuesday’s 14 nautical mile course starting off Steele Point.

“The boat is meant to go offshore and we’ll do the best we can in this tight stuff,” Read said.

“It’s certainly not made for it, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to try and figure it out.”

A third super maxi, Perpetual LOYAL, will also contest the Big Boat Challenge

Owner Anthony Bell said his boat will have a new bowsprit which he says his sailmaker and sailing master Michael Coxon claims will carry the biggest spinnaker ever made for a maxi boat in sailing.

The other two super maxis in the Hobart fleet, Ragamuffin 100 and RIO 100, won’t be racing on Tuesday.

The fleet will contain a number of smaller boats that could be handicap contenders for the Sydney to Hobart, including Onesails Racing, Terra Firma, Balance, Frantic and Ichi Ban.

©2014 AAP

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