By TONY WHITE
IN the swirling, treacherous surf of Portsea in Victoria tomorrow, Yamba lifesaver Hugh Dougherty will be fighting for survival. The same waters claimed the life of Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt, who tragically disappeared in the surf after a morning swim on December 17, 1967. Twenty-one-year-old Dougherty is desperate not to let his aspirations in the Kellog's Nutri-Grain Ironman Series sink without an almighty fight. In the new format for season 2004-05 competitors do battle in only two rounds, the top 10 qualifying for the finals in Sydney on February 22. In his debut year in the prestigious series, Dougherty, now representing Tugun in Queensland, finished an unlucky 16th in the opening round on the Gold Coast. Round two at Portsea is make or break for Dougherty who needs to finish in the top five to have a chance of qualifying for the finals. And just to add spice to the event, Portsea traditionally involves competitors facing big seas, a challenge Dougherty relishes. "Yeah, last year it was about 10 feet. There's usually a bit of swell at Portsea," Dougherty said. "I don't know whether I want it that big, five to six foot would be good. You never know what can happen in big surf. "Either way, it's sure to be interesting." Dougherty flies out of Coolangatta Airport on Saturday morning for Melbourne and his first ever trip to Portsea. "I'll have a good look around when I get there, probably have a paddle on the board and catch a few waves just to check the conditions," he said. "It's a matter of getting familiar with the place. "On Sunday I'll have a good warm up of around an hour before the races. "I'm feeling pretty good at the moment. I've trained pretty well over the Christmas-New Year period back home (Yamba) and I'm hoping to go all right. I'm feeling confident. It's a matter of getting my head right and having a bit of luck. "Obviously it's going to be tough. Everyone, the 20 of us, are going for the same thing. "To be realistic I'd have to finish in the top five down there (Portsea) to have a chance of making the finals, but I'll be giving it my best shot. "I'll be aiming to be in contact with the lead pack and stay there. "With the new format ? only two rounds ? the pressure's on right from the start. If you have a bad race you don't get much chance to pick up the points." Dougherty admits the board leg is his strongest followed by the swim and ski legs. The ski leg can be trying for competitors, particularly in big seas. "The last thing you want to do is capsize and lose your ski," he said. "If you've got to swim in with your paddle, you lose a heap of time. "It's hang on at all costs." Dougherty nominated first round winner Shannon Eckstein and previous Nutri-Grain champion Kye Hurst as 'the men to beat'.