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Fatal storms haunt Sydney Hobart yacht race 20 years on

Sydney—The gruelling Sydney to Hobart blue-water classic will take 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 Harbour on Boxing Day, December 26, in a 628-nautical-mile (1,163-kilometre) dash down Australia’s east coast towards the island state of Tasmania.

But the 1998 edition of the annual race, held since 1945, 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 will 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 honours 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.”

The absence of a public memorial reflects the magnitude of the trauma that hit the sailing fraternity.

Steve Walker, who competed in 1998, told the Hobart Mercury “the families (of the victims) have moved on and it’s painful having the memories brought up again... We don’t need to do something formal”.

American billionaire Larry Ellison, owner-skipper of 1998 line honours winner Sayonara, was so appalled by the tragedy he vowed never to return.

Memories that stuck with Ed Psaltis, who skippered overall handicap honours winner AFR Midnight Rambler, include the constant scream of the winds and the sound of spray hitting the hull like a machine gun firing bullets. 

Yet the competitors have also hailed sweeping changes put in place since in one of the world’s toughest yacht races.

‘A dangerous line’

Back then, there was no GPS and boats reported their positions twice a day via radio, with the storm hampering communications and the location of distressed vessels.

Yacht tracking was introduced in 1999 and today, anyone can follow the fleet online. New rules on crew experience and training and on mandatory safety equipment were also implemented.

“To the extent that we can make this race safe, we really have put in place every possible measure, rule, regulation, to try and help that,” the Commodore of organiser the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, Paul Billingham, told AFP.

Armed with more accurate and timely information about weather conditions, sailors say they are better prepared.

“In 2010, there was two huge fronts that came through and the same again in 2015,” owner-skipper of last year’s line honours winner LDV Comanche Jim Cooney told AFP. 

“But we knew about it, we were prepared for it and there was minimum damage to any boats and certainly no boats lost in those races.”

And even though the battle to be the fastest vessel ramps up every year, Cooney said supermaxis like his speedy 100-footer are built to withstand a severe battering.

“If you weren’t careful in the design, then yes, you can cross a dangerous line. However, Comanche was built to sail around the world, it wasn’t built to sail on flat water in comfortable conditions,” the race veteran said.

“I actually feel safer on Comanche then I have on any of my smaller boats over the years... It’s a very strong boat and a very stable boat.”

With the volatility of the weather a signature part of the race, it’s impossible to remove every risk, added Billingham.

“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 which is the Sydney to Hobart yacht race every year.” 

Topics: Sydney , Hobart , Sydney Harbour on Boxing Day , Cruising Yacht Club , Jim Cooney
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