Mon, Dec 24, 2018 - Page 10 News List

Fatal storm haunts Sydney-Hobart yacht race 20 years later

AFP, SYDNEY

The injured crew of demasted Australian yacht Stand Aside wait to be rescued by helicopter in the Bass Strait during the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race on Dec. 27, 1998.

Photo: AFP

The grueling Sydney to Hobart blue-water classic takes a poignant turn this year when it marks two decades since six sailors died in a horror storm — one of Australia’s worst sporting disasters.

Wild weather is a regular hazard in the epic contest, in which a fleet of yachts depart Sydney Harbor on Boxing Day, Dec. 26, in a 628 nautical mile (1,163km) dash down Australia’s east coast toward the island state of Tasmania.

However, the 1998 edition of the annual race had particularly adverse conditions, with mountainous seas and roaring winds in the treacherous Bass Strait tossing vessels around like rag dolls.

Six men died, five boats sank and 55 sailors were rescued when the deep depression exploded over the Tasman Sea. While 115 boats started the race, only 44 finished.

To mark the occasion, there is to be a minute of silence among competitors on the second day of the race.

“It’s not just this moment of silence, we think about it every year,” said Mark Richards, skipper of eight-time line honors winner Wild Oats XI.

“We have a lot of respect for the families and the people who lost their lives in that race. We’ll certainly be thinking of all those guys,” he added.

The competitors have hailed sweeping changes put in place since that incident.

Back then, there was no GPS and boats reported their positions twice a day via radio, with the storm hampering communications and the locating of distressed vessels. Yacht tracking was introduced in 1999 and anyone today can follow the fleet online.

New rules on crew experience and training, as well as mandatory safety equipment, were implemented.

“To the extent that we can make this race safe, we really have put in place every possible measure,” Cruising Yacht Club of Australia commodore Paul Billingham said.

With the volatility of the weather a signature part of the race, it is impossible to remove every risk, Billingham said.

“At the end of the day, it’s unpredictable... That is, I guess, the risk of the sport,” he said. “That’s why they are out there, for the challenge that is the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race every year.”

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