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Sydney smashes tip two overboard

Alfa Romeo was leading the 55-yacht fleet nine hours into the race.
Alfa Romeo was leading the 55-yacht fleet nine hours into the race.

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SYDNEY, Australia -- Two sailors went overboard at the start of the annual Sydney to Hobart race as four yachts collided minutes after the start.

Both men were unhurt and quickly rescued as two of the crippled boats withdrew from the race.

The fleet of 57 yachts started in heavy rain, mist and poor visibility.

Australian 13-metre (43 feet) yacht Valheru was left with a gaping hole and almost sank after it was hit by joint French-Australian entrant Peugeot Racing, Reuters reported

Valheru crewman Peter Fletcher was thrown into a choppy Sydney Harbour but was quickly rescued by officials in a chase boat.

Fletcher was unhurt, race spokesman Peter Campbell said.

Peugeot was forced to make a penalty turn before continuing in the 58th race.

Australia's Trump Card also pulled out with a holed stern after it was hit by Sydney boat Loki seconds after the starting gun was fired by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Mt Everest.

Trump Card crewman Richard Cole was thrown into the water by the force of the collision and dragged for about 50 metres (165 feet) underwater before he was rescued unhurt, Campbell said.

The maxi Alfa Romeo led British rival Canon Leopard, the biggest boat in the fleet at 29.5 metres (97 feet), out of Sydney Heads and into the Tasman Sea for the 630 nautical race south down Australia's east coast to Tasmania.

Sydney-based New Zealand businessman Neville Crichton's sleek grey yacht was still in the lead after the boats radioed their first position reports about nine hours after the start.

Alfa Romeo still had about 509 miles to travel and led Canon by just over a mile, with Swedish maxi Nicorette third.

Nicorette, skippered by Finn Ludde Ingvall, won the Sydney-Hobart in 2000 and came second last year after it was knocked on its side by a water spout, or sea tornado, while crossing the rough Bass Strait.

The easterly wind and lumpy seas left Alfa Romeo with little chance of challenging the race record of one day, 19 hours, 48 minutes and two seconds set by Danish flyer Nokia in 1999.

The fleet is the smallest since 1973, largely because of increased insurance costs and stringent safety conditions

imposed after six sailors died when freak storms hit the 1998 race.

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