The Australian yacht Skandia has won the annual Sydney to Hobart ocean race. The 628 nautical mile event is one of the toughest challenges in world yachting. The winning vessel crossed the finish line just 14 minutes ahead of its nearest rival.

Skandia crossed the line in two days, 15 hours and 14 minutes, just missing the record. The Australian yacht almost did not make it to Hobart, the capital of the island state of Tasmania. It narrowly avoided hitting a spectator boat in Sydney Harbor at the start of the race on December 26. Then, in the middle of the Tasman Sea, the 98-foot yacht's progress was temporarily halted when it ran into a giant sunfish.

On their voyage south, the yachts passed through the Tasman Sea, across the inhospitable Bass Strait before heading into calmer waters, up the Derwent River and into Hobart.

As expected, this year's dash south was a fierce tactical battle between the two largest boats ever to compete in the Sydney to Hobart race.

Zana, from New Zealand, was until the very end within sight of Skandia, which is the first Australian yacht to win the race in six years.

The winning skipper Grant Wharington paid tribute to his crew. "Just sensational - just a real relief. I mean, the guys really deserved it," he says. T"hey did an awesome job and just a real pleasure to be sailing with such a fantastic bunch of guys."

This has been one of the closest races in years. The captain of second-place Zana, Stuart Thwaites, says his team put everything into the challenge for the title. "Disappointed, obviously but at the same time very happy with the boat, very happy with the crew and being that close is hard," he says.

Fifty-seven boats set out at the beginning of this blue-water classic but such is the punishing nature of the trip down Australia's southeastern coast that not all will make it to Tasmania. So far, two damaged yachts have retired.

Some of the smaller vessels in the fleet could take several more days to complete the journey.

Tough safety regulations were introduced after disaster struck the race in 1998, when yachts were hit by giant waves and winds gusting up to 170 kilometers an hour. Six sailors were killed in a race that has become known as "Hell on Highwater."