Wild Oats XI, seeking its fourth line honors win in a row, took advantage of a perfect start to lead a 100-yacht fleet out of Sydney Harbor yesterday in the Sydney to Hobart race.
Thousands of spectators ringed the harbor, some standing on cliffs and beaches, others bobbing on the sun-dappled waters in pleasure craft, as a dozen helicopters hovered overhead to witness the annual spectacle.
Dark clouds that had hung over the harbor in the morning burned away and weather conditions were expected to be favorable for most of the race — northerly winds that will push the fleet down the south coast of New South Wales State, across Bass Strait and to the island state of Tasmania and its capital Hobart.
The yachts jostled for prime position at the start and as the clock ticked down at the crack of a cannon, they set off across the spectacular harbor, leaving the city skyline behind.
Wild Oats was first to reach the Sydney Heads at the entrance of the harbor, passing through the rocky outcrops and into the Tasman Sea.
As Wild Oats unfurled its spinnaker, pleasure boats and race craft zigged and zagged, often coming close to colliding in the washing machine of the open ocean.
Skippered by Mark Richards, Wild Oats holds the record in the 1,163km race, winning in 2005 in a time of 1 day, 18 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds.
Skandia, another maxi that won the race in 2003, was expected to give Wild Oats its strongest competition for line honors. Nearly three hours into the race, Wild Oats led by 3.7km over Skandia, with Black Jack another 3.7km behind.
There were 11 international entries this year, including two each from New Zealand, the Netherlands and Britain and one from the US.
The race, which was first held in 1945, has been hit by severe storms in the past. This race marks the 10th anniversary of the 1998 event in which six sailors died and seven boats sank during a storm that hit the fleet early on the first night.
Last year, eight sailors had to abandon a sinking vessel and three others were airlifted to hospital with injuries.