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Famous Australian Yacht Race Remembers 1998 Tragedy


FILE - The injured crew of demasted Australian yacht "Stand Aside" await rescue by helicopter as they tow a life-raft in Bass Strait during the Sydney-to-Hobart ocean race, Dec. 27, 1998.

It has been 20 years since tragedy hit the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, one of the toughest ocean competitions in the world. Six sailors died when a wild storm hit the fleet in 1998. Many yachts were forced out of the race, and dozens of competitors were winched to safety by helicopter.

It was Australia's biggest peacetime search and rescue effort as the Sydney to Hobart fleet was ambushed by a monstrous storm.

While some yachts battled on, others capsized and sailors tossed into the ocean. Six were killed, and dozens more were winched to safety in daring sea rescues.

Sailor 1: "[I] saw people picked up and hurled into parts of the boat badly injuring themselves."

Sailor 2: "First concern was that everybody was safe onboard the yacht. Second concern was to look after the yacht as much as possible and our last concern was to worry about racing."

Sailor 3: "We were just getting rolled time after time and that was really unsettling for the crew down below and it was dangerous for the crew on top."

Michael Bellingham was also in the race in 1998. This year he is competing again, and he will be the navigator onboard the yacht Patrice, but the disaster 20 years ago is never far from his thoughts.

"At its worst we had incredibly big seas, we had horizontal wind. What highlights it for me often is the memory of seeing a container ship traveling from New Zealand, I think, to Melbourne. As this ship went over the waves — this is a giant, big container ship — as the bow went down over the wave you could see the propellers coming out the back spinning. So that kind of made you aware that these were pretty big waves, right," he said.

An armada of spectator craft churn up Sydney Harbour during the start of the 54th Sydney-to-Hobart ocean race, Dec. 26, 1998.
An armada of spectator craft churn up Sydney Harbour during the start of the 54th Sydney-to-Hobart ocean race, Dec. 26, 1998.

The weather system that hit the fleet 20 years ago off New South Wales is known as an east coast low. They are common but would only reach the intensity of 1998 every three or four years, according to Jane Golding from Australia's Bureau of Meteorology.

"Storm force winds, 40 to 50 knots, thunderstorms rain. They had interesting currents as well just to complicate matters. Those conditions lasted for effectively 24 hours. Really steep, high waves as well, you know, as high as buildings generated by these storm force winds," said Golding.

It was the people of Eden, a former whaling town south of Sydney, who played a major part in the rescue mission.

Barry Griffiths is a former volunteer coast guard, who tried desperately to communicate with the crews at sea.

"Some we couldn't hear because of the wind and somebody is talking to them and the radio went dead. You feel so helpless when all you can do it talk to them and hope that you are getting through," he said.

Olli Hreinsson managed to reach sailors on a sinking yacht onboard his fishing trawler in a rescue that took 19 hours.

"Maydays start raining out on the radio and it looks like people is [sic] dying out there and we cannot really sit here and just listen to them die. We have to do something," he said.

On the second day of this year's Sydney to Hobart race, a minute's silence will be observed by those at sea to remember that terrible day in 1998.

Lindsay May's boat survived unscathed during that storm. He says the tragedy resulted in faster and more reliable weather updates, as well as a wholesale reform of safety standards.

"The gear that we use is all designed about protecting the crew and making the sport safer, so we will have a minute and I hope a lot of people will just reflect on the changes that have happened as a result and that if anything good has come out of it is that we have not lost anybody since and we have had some pretty tough races. It is time to reflect and remember this is a tough game sometimes," said May.

This year for the first time an all-female professional crew has been put together specifically for the Sydney to Hobart race and will compete on Wild Oats X.

The race record of one day, 9 hours and 15 minutes was set by the Australian boat, Comanche, in 2017.

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