Super-maxi Nicorette was grinding its way to a hard-fought victory in its first ever Sydney to Hobart yacht race yesterday after raging seas forced out defending champion Skandia and joint favorite Konica Minolta.
With its main rivals out of the way, Nicorette opened up a 50 nautical mile lead over the chasing pack and was expected to take line honors at Hobart's Constitution Dock early today.
The super-maxi, launched only three weeks ago, spent the final stages of the race hugging the coast of the island state of Tasmania in an attempt to avoid the battering that has forced 51 of the 116 boats which began the 627 nautical mile bluewater classic on Sunday to retire.
The fleet took its worst pounding since 1998, when six sailors died and seven boats were lost, as gale force winds, thunderstorms and lightning hammered the boats.
Skandia sent out a distress call late on Monday when it was about 65 nautical miles east-northeast of the northeastern tip of Tasmania.
Seven hours later, the Australian super-maxi's 16 crew members abandoned ship in inflatable life-rafts because the yacht's canting keel had jammed to starboard and they were unable to steer a boat listing dangerously in 7m swells.
The crew was picked up by a police launch after two hours. Race officials said it was not clear whether the damage was caused by Skandia's collision with a 300kg sunfish shortly after it entered the notorious Bass Strait on Monday.
The crew emerged from the ordeal unhurt but Skandia skipper Grant Wharington's hopes of becoming the first back-to-back winner for 21 years were dashed in what he described as a "terrible blow."
Race control said a tug would attempt to recover the stricken yacht early today.
Skandia's arch-rival Konica Minolta retired after a massive wave split open the New Zealand yacht's cabin and damaged the keel support structure, leaving the keel in danger of shearing away from the boat entirely.
"We barrelled off the top of a gi-normous wave and crashed down the other side of it," Konica Minolta skipper Stewart Thwaites said by phone.
"This wave was twice as big as any others we've seen during this race. It was a pretty hairy night overall," he says.
The withdrawal of joint favorites Skandia and Konica Minolta scuppered prospects of a repeat of last year's duel-to-the-finish, when the Australian yacht beat its trans-Tasman rival into Hobart by only 14 minutes after the pair remained within sight of each other for most of the race.
Nicorette was launched earlier this month after skipper Ludde Ingvall, who won line honors with Nicorette's namesake in 2000, had the boat built in just six months in Sydney this year, an unusually short construction period for the hi-tech super-maxis.
While rivals said the 30m was untested and predicted, question marks over its performance in a race ranked as one of the world's top three bluewater classics, it appears set to be the only super-maxi to make it to Hobart.
Ingvall said the conditions meant he was just "trying to take it easy and not break anything.
"Just one bad wave can finish the race for anyone, whether the boat is old or new," he said. "It's not the way you want to win a race."
Race control said several yachts were sheltering in Twofold Bay on Tasmania's east coast waiting for a break in gale force winds.