Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Favorites take a big lead in Sydney-to-Hobart race

ON THE HIGH SEAS Super maxis Zana and Skandia streaked ahead of the pack at the start of the 59th running of the 1,161km race from Sydney to Hobart in Tasmania

AFP , SYDNEY

The fleet in the Sydney-to-Hobart race, being led by super maxis Skandia, left, and Zana race around the South Head of Sydney Harbour yesterday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Co-favorite super maxi Zana was leading the field in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race late yesterday after a spectacular but rare spinnaker start marked the 59th edition of the bluewater classic.

Australia's Skandia and Kiwi rival Zana raced away from the 56-strong field, their size -- 30m -- separating them from the rest of the fleet which sailed under spinnakers to the delight of masses of fans gathered on the foreshore.

The pair are the bookies' and yachties' favorites to take out line honors in the 627-nautical mile (1,161km) premier ocean race on the Australian yachting calendar.

Ten-knot south-to-southeast winds swiftly carried the multi-million dollar craft across Sydney Harbour and through the Heads to open water.

Skandia took the early lead in skipper Grant Wharington's 16th start in the Sydney-Hobart, but Zana emerged victorious from a tacking dual in the open water, setting the scene for a rivalry destined to last the distance. Skandia was some 14 boat lengths behind.

The fresh but fine conditions are not expected to produce a record-setting pace but were nevertheless welcomed by race organizers, who lost six sailors during atrocious weather in 1998.

But some sailors are a little skeptical of yesterday's forecasts, wary of a sudden shifts in conditions as seen in previous years.

"I think it's going to be quite tough actually and I think they have underestimated the winds in the Bass Strait," said Ludde Ingvall, skipper of 2000 line honors winner Nicorette. "I think we will get quite a thrashing in Bass Strait."

The wind is forecast to shift to the southwest today, its 20-30 knots kicking up a two-to-three-meter swell with more variable conditions predicted for Sunday.

Skandia and Zana are two of the biggest yachts ever to contest the race and will put technology and tradition to the test.

Skandia has adopted the latest developments in yachting hi-tech, fitting a canting, or swinging, keel, electric winches and an engine that retracts into the boat to cut drag.

Zana, meanwhile, has taken the traditional approach, using water ballast to add to her weight as she sails into the wind.

Owner and skipper Stewart Thwaites commissioned the yacht specifically for the event, and while untested in ocean racing, Zana sailed without trouble from New Zealand to make it to the start line.

Sailing in just his fourth Sydney-to-Hobart, Thwaites said he was disappointed not to have sailed out of Sydney in first place but was happy to get through the Heads safely.

"Today is the first day our crew has sailed together. It's early days yet but I am very happy with the boat," Thwaites said in comments broadcast live on television.

The first of the fleet is expected to sail down the Derwent River in Hobart, on the island state of Tasmania, sometime tomorrow, far slower than Danish round-the-worlder Nokia which became the first yacht in the race's history to finish in under two days, clocking just one day, 19 hours, 48 minutes and two seconds four years ago.

Love & War was leading the overall honors, or handicap, race, ahead of Yendy's and Ragamuffin, while last year's winner, Quest, was in fifth place.

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