SYDNEY: Australian super maxi Skandia maintained its narrow lead over New Zealand rival Zana in the Sydney-Hobart race yesterday as the leading boats neared the finish line after a rough crossing of Bass Strait.
High seas forced the retirement of 2000 winner Nicorette of Sweden earlier yesterday and also caused anxious moments for crews on the two leading boats, which have been engaged in a tense tactical battle throughout the 630 nautical mile race.
Skandia and Zana, two 30 metre (98 feet) carbon fibre boats, have been within sight of each other since Friday's start in Sydney Harbour and were expected to finish by about 5 am today (1800 GMT Sunday).
By 6 pm on Sunday (0600 GMT), Melbourne property developer Grant Wharington's blue-hulled Skandia led Zana by about two nautical miles off the island state of Tasmania and had about 90 miles to the finish line in the Derwent River in Hobart.
The two super maxis, the biggest boats ever to compete in the annual bluewater classic, had made the difficult Bass Strait crossing between the Australian mainland and Tasmania in rough seas and southwesterly headwinds of up to 30 knots overnight.
Conditions began to moderate later on Sunday, pushing back their forecast finish times.
Australian downwind flyer Grundig was still setting a surprisingly good pace despite the prevailing headwinds and remained in third place.
Skandia sailing master Ian Walker described the Bass Strait crossing as horrendous and said the close battle with Zana was likely to continue all the way to the finish line, with the Derwent River well known for its fickle conditions.
Both boats will be locked together as they come up the Derwent River, Walker said. We are not confident that the Derwent River is going to be that friendly.
The crew on pre-race favourite Skandia made makeshift repairs earlier yesterday using screwdrivers to jam closed cracks which had appeared in a carbon fibre steering pillar.
Wharington's boat was also lucky to survive unscathed after it hit a huge sunfish in Bass Strait on Saturday.
The rough Bass Strait conditions however ended Nicorette's race, the Swedish maxi pulling out early on Sunday when its sophisticated new canting, or swinging, keel and hull suffered substantial damage in three-metre (10 feet) seas overnight.
Nicorette owner and skipper Ludde Ingvall said the boat might have been able to continue but he believed it was safer to turn around and head for coastal town of Eden on the mainland.
Naturally everybody's very disappointed, but I think everybody is also in agreement that from a safety point of view there is no purpose in taking an unnecessary risk, Ingvall told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.
Nicorette, which survived despite being knocked flat by a water spout during the 2001 race, was fourth when it retired.
It was the second boat to pull out at sea, with the fleet now standing at 54.
Sydney 10-metre (38 feet) Dodo withdrew late on Saturday with mainsail damage, while small Australian yacht Strewth was unable to make the start because of a broken starter motor. Reuters