Yachting: Winds ease as three dash for Hobart line honours

HOBART - The leading yachts in the Sydney to Hobart race made the most of calmer conditions as the contest for line honours reached its final stages.

The southwesterly gale-force winds which forced the retirement of 12 boats on Monday had subsided, with the first competitors expected in Hobart overnight.

Four-time winner of line honours Wild Oats XI maintained a lead over nearest rival Investec Loyal, while Lahana was third.

Loyal's skipper, Sean Langman, said the supermaxi's chances of arriving in Hobart first depended on getting the right conditions.

"We're going to arrive as the breeze fades, the sun goes down and the wind shuts down, so our best opportunity is just the arrival time."

Lahana helmsman Geoff Cropley said his yacht's wide course was part of its strategy.

"We're deliberately staying out wide to avoid the softer winds to the west of us," he said. "Tactically, we're exactly where we want to be.

"We're in a pretty good position, everyone's on the rail and we're going hard.

"Our strategy is to be the most easterly boat until we start hunting up towards [the lead]."

Wild Oats was also enjoying calmer conditions. The 100-foot supermaxi's navigator Adrienne Cahalan said the crew was in good shape.

"We are certainly glad to see this calmer weather, but it's bitterly cold out here this morning," she said.

The fleet was reduced to 71 boats after the withdrawals of Pirelli Celestial, Salona II, Nemesis and last year's overall winner, Two True.

The New South Wales yacht Pirelli Celestial had difficulties with its mainsail, Sydney's Salona had steering troubles, while Two True had problems with its engine.

Bacardi skipper Martin Power described the shocking moments as the deck of his sturdy 44-footer was torn apart when it was dismasted in gale-force winds.

"There was an explosion when the deck disintegrated," recalled Power, having reaching the safety of Ulladulla on the New South Wales south coast.

"I saw the mast go.

"That was quiet, but when the chainplates peeled the deck away, there was a tremendous noise."

Crewman Matthew Feore was below deck preparing to help reduce sail when the mast went and he saw the deck above him disappear.

"One moment Matthew's lying there preparing to come up to make the change, the next moment the roof opens up and he's looking at thesky and water coming in," saidPower.

Built to last, Bacardi had never failed to finish in 26 previous Sydney to Hobart races, but it succumbed as yesterday's 40-50 knot winds took a heavy toll on the fleet.

The deck was so badly damaged the crew had to secure parts of it using a block and tackle as nearby competitor Local Gero, skippered by Peter Mosely, stood by ready to give assistance.

Eventually, Power was able to point the yacht to Ulladulla.

"We speared down waves at 13 knots, under motor, faster than we had sailed during the race."

- AAP

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