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Thunderstorms hit Sydney Hobart fleet

Team News Corp
Australian entry Team News Corp is one of Volvo 60s in the Sydney Hobart race  

SYDNEY, Australia -- Severe thunderstorms off the Australian coast ripped into the leading yachts in the 57th Sydney Hobart Yacht Race on their first night at sea, forcing one of the line honours favourites -- the Australian yacht Skandia Wild Thing -- out of the 627-mile race.

Wild Thing ripped its mainsail, while a smaller yacht, Sting, reported rigging damage as they returned north to Sydney. Two other yachts, Simply Red and Cadibarra, both from Melbourne, also retired damaged, with a broken forestay and ripped mainsail, respectively.

A southwesterly front of 25 to 30 knots hit the fleet early Wednesday evening as the leaders neared Jervis Bay, but the thunderstorms apparently caused the worst damage.

Volvo team and skipper profiles 

Line honours favourite Nicorette, the Swedish maxi, was hit by what skipper Ludde Ingvall described as a "twister," with the crew dropping the high-tech sails as golf-ball-sized hail pounded the boat.

Nicorette, the line honours winner last year, suffered a torn mainsail, but it was replaced with a spare sail and was continuing in the race to Tasmania.

Nicorette had taken the lead three hours after a mediocre start, but then dropped back to fourth place in the storm.

The Volvo 60s Tyco from Bermuda and illbruck from Germany took over the lead, with the skiff-like 66-footer Grundig from Sydney sailing into third place.

Clever tactical moves put Tyco into a shared lead with illbruck by staying further offshore than the rest of the fleet. This has put their track further into the warm waters of the south-going East Australian Current.

With the wind from the southwest during the first hours of the leg, they were able to crack the sheets further and maintain a higher boat speed.

Once the wind started to swing around to the southeast, they had a favourable windward position that put them on top of the fleet.

Six more Volvo 60s, closely bunched together, came astern of Nicorette: Assa Abloy and SEB from Sweden, the Australian entry Team News Corp, Amer Sports One from Italy, Djuice from Denmark and Amer Sports Too.

The Volvo 60s are using the Sydney Hobart Race as the first section of the 2,050-mile leg to Auckland, New Zealand.

Instead of a celebratory drink in Hobart, the Volvo crews have a compulsory 3 1/2-hour unassisted pit stop before heading back to sea.

The wind was light for the Boxing Day start inside Sydney Harbour. A pall of smoky haze from bush fires raging around Sydney hung over the fleet as they made their way out past Sydney Heads and south down the coast of New South Wales.

The local Volvo 60 Newscorp, skippered by Jez Fanstone, took the AUS$10,000 prize in the Citroen sponsored "dash for cash" to the first mark just outside the harbour.

The latest forecast is for the strong winds to continue overnight but ease on Thursday as the front moves north. However, winds are expected to freshen again off the Far South Coast.

Crowds gather to watch start

Despite the lack of blue skies, hundreds of spectator boats accompanied the race fleet, while about 350,000 people lined the Sydney foreshores to watch what is regarded as one of the world's blue water classics.

The fastest yachts were expected to reach Hobart in about 2 1/2 days.

The race record -- unlikely to be tested this year -- is 1 day, 19 hours, 48 minutes set by Nokia in 1999.

For the past six years, Australia's biggest telco, Telstra, has sponsored the race at an estimated annual cost of about $350,000 in cash and services.

But this year the race organizer, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, has no main sponsor, reflecting a difficult marketing environment for sports events, coming off the high of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The 2001 global economic downturn -- particularly in the information technology sector -- has had a marked impact on advertising budgets. Added to that is the blow that business confidence took in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks.

The sluggish economy and the lack of a main sponsor have hurt participation this year. But the prime reason fleet numbers are down is that the cost of taking part has risen dramatically over safety and insurance costs.

That stems from the tragic 1998 race, when wild weather costs the lives of six sailors and 55 others had to be rescued. Five yachts sank and another seven had to be abandoned.

After that, safety requirements for boats were stepped up, and special safety training for crews was made compulsory.

Now, apart from the safety gear on the boats, every crewmember has about $1,000 worth of safety equipment, including a personal emergency radio beacon.

The result is that the race is safer in terms of equipment and crew skills. In addition, rising insurance costs mean that competing in this one race can cost up to $20,000 in premiums.

That means that the Sydney-Hobart event has become a race for professional and semi-professional boats and crews, rather than the weekend sailors that the race was designed for when it began in 1945.

For example, 371 boats took part in the 50th anniversary race in 1994 and 115 in 1998. But this year, only 75 yachts are competing, including the eight Volvo 60 racers.




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