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Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race Begins in Australia


One of the world's toughest sailing races is under way in eastern Australia as more than 80 yachts compete in the annual dash from Sydney to Hobart. The 1100 kilometer journey to Hobart in Tasmania can be treacherous. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

The 62-year-old race attracts multi-million dollar yachts crewed by professionals and smaller vessels owned by amateur sailors.

The international contingent includes Mexico's first entry and yachts from Britain and the United States.

The fastest boats hope to reach the Tasmanian state capital within two days, while the slower entrants could take up to a week.

Hundreds of thousands of people watched the start of the race from shore and aboard hundreds of spectator craft.

The annual blue-water race began under clear skies and light winds on Sydney harbor. The giant super maxis, including the favorite Wild Oats XI dominated the start.

" The 63rd Rolex Sydney-Hobart is full throttle. And it's been a very good start for Wild Oats XI," the announcer says. "Was that boat at the top over the line early? Time will tell. Scandia just dragging a little and City Index Leopard having a nice start in clear water."

The 30-meter Australian yacht Wild Oats is seeking its third win in as many years. It holds the record speed for the race of one day, 18 hours and 40 minutes.

Weather forecasters say that slack winds mean that mark, set in 2005, is unlikely to be broken this year.

History though has already been made. Eighty-five-year-old Sydney sailor John Walker has become the oldest skipper to take part in the race.

The course runs down the southeast coast of Australia and across the treacherous waters of Bass Strait to the island state of Tasmania.

It is one of the world's toughest yacht races. Six sailors died in 1998 when a storm hit the fleet, sinking several boats.

One skipper, Andrew Short, says he will never forget the dangerous conditions that year.

"Spent three and a half, four days out there bouncing around. We had 24 people on board, and there was only 18 of those guys stayed down below for the whole race, they were just sick as a dog," he said.

The tragedy prompted organizers to impose stringent new safety standards but minor injuries are still common and some yachts are forced to abandon the race every year.

Bad weather also hit last year's race. Eight sailors had to abandon a sinking vessel and three others were airlifted to a hospital after being injured.