South African sailing enthusiasts will feel a lump in their throats on January 8 when Voortrekker, the grand dame of South African sailing, makes a nostalgic comeback to ocean racing at the start of the MTN Cape-to-Rio race.

Thirty-one years ago, this 15,2-metre sloop, financed by industrialist Anton Rupert, swept South African sailing onto the world stage when Bruce Dalling sailed her to a handicap victory and second over the line in the Observer single-handed Transatlantic race.

Overnight, she was to launch an unprecedented surge of South African interest in sailing and within a week of Dalling's return, plans were being hatched for the inaugural 1971 Cape-to-Rio race.

The Cape Times was to play a leading role in the race with then-editor, Victor Norton, being appointed chairperson of the race committee.

It all began with a newspaper column suggesting that the time was ripe for South Africa to launch an ocean race of its own. "Trekker" was the inspiration behind the creation of the 3 600-mile race, then the longest ocean race in the world.

It was a race to celebrate the pioneering spirit of two of the greatest seafarers of all, Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama - the first to round the Cape of Storms. Diaz was present at the discovery of Rio de Janeiro 500 years ago.

A record 69 yachts sailed the first Cape-to-Rio race.

Voortrekker, which also featured in the 1973 Cape-to-Rio race, had only just begun her adventure.

In 1981, her legacy continued in partnership with Bertie "Biltong" Reed in the inaugural BOC Challenge single-handed around-the-world race.

Reed finished second in the gruelling 27 000-mile race, beating lighter, faster designs.

In recent years, under the care of the South African navy, Trekker was used as a training vessel. And Reed, fearing that the most famous yacht in South Africa was being neglected, began to campaign for her to become a museum piece at the V&A Waterfront.

The navy had other ideas. Three years ago, she helped launch the careers of young black sailors from Kwa Thema, including Golden Mgedeza, who is sailing to Rio.

Rupert, in partnership with Benjamin de Rothschild of France, will be sponsoring the boat under the Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons banner.

Her skipper is Rear Admiral Piet Potgieter, former captain of the Navy flagship, SAS Drakensburg, the guardship on the 1993 Rio race. He is now the flag officer commanding the Military Academy at Saldanha.

Admiral Potgieter sailed the last race in 1996 with two rookie black seamen and survived a knockdown on the 9,4-metre Southern Maid, to finish in 28 days. This time he's delighted to be at the helm of this larger craft.

"Now we're hoping to complete the crossing in 21 or 22 days, if the wind holds, but there are no guarantees in ocean racing. In the last race we sat in a hole (becalmed) for 24 hours near Isle da Trinidade and on the Rio race you always need a bit of luck.

"You make use of technology, study the weather as best you can and decide on your tactics, but a lot depends on the boat. In very little wind the bigger boats have a tremendous advantage over the smaller entries," said Potgieter.

The 31-year-old Voortrekker, nevertheless, is at a significant weight disadvantage to rivals of a similar size. She weighs in at 9,5 tons as opposed to the modern Fast 42s, which are 2,4-metres smaller but four tons lighter.

"She's pushing on in years but it's a privilege to sail her in this race," says Potgieter.

"There's been talk over how much longer she can keep going and, being a wooden-hulled boat, she commands full-time maintenance and enthusiasm.

"Commander Louis du Plessis has done an excellent job in her refurbishment. She's in race condition again and will be fine."

His only complaint is a low freeboard. At 1,89-metres tall, the skipper will be walking doubled-up whenever he's below deck.

"My only dread is a serious injury to one of the crew or equipment failure, which we might not be able to handle.

"A serious broach, a Chinese gybe and a damaged rudder or broken forestay can be like spraining an ankle five kilometres into a marathon."

Potgieter knows that Voortrekker has never quit a major race and he has every intention of sailing the oldest, most famous boat in the fleet across the finish line to celebrate the race she started in the first place.