British entry ICAP Leopard leads early in Sydney to Hobart yacht race

Saturday, December 26, 2009

British entry ICAP Leopard leads yacht race

SYDNEY — British yacht ICAP Leopard got out to an early lead in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race on Saturday, with Alfa Romeo and four-time defending champion Wild Oats XI in close pursuit.

Leopard, a two-time winner of the Fastnet ocean race, was in an early duel with Alfa Romeo, which led the yachts out of Sydney Harbour at the start. Wild Oats was about a nautical mile behind as the leaders made their way down the New South Wales state south coast.

With light winds in the forecast, none of the leading yachts was expected to break the race record. The first yachts were due to reach Hobart, on the island state of Tasmania, late Monday morning.

In 2005, Wild Oats XI, skippered by Mark Richards, finished the 723-mile race in a record 1 day, 18 hours, 40 minutes, after crossing the line at Constitution Dock in Hobart. The yacht is seeking its fifth straight win in the annual race first held in 1945.

Alfa Romeo, skippered by Sydney-based New Zealander Neville Crichton, took advantage of a spinnaker problem on board Wild Oats to take the lead out of Sydney Harbor. Leopard was third to sail between Sydney Heads and into open ocean.

Etihad Stadium, formerly known as Skandia, only just made the start after transporting and installing a replacement mast from England. Skipper Grant Wharington spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the repairs, but a problem with the rigging in the new mast forced him to retire the boat before it even left the harbor.

“Just disappointed … for my team more than anything,” Wharington said. “We’ve had probably 50 people for the last two weeks, with an enormous input from every single person.”

Richards predicted the race would be a “mindbender” because of lighter than expected winds.

“It’s going to be a tricky race, nowhere near as windy as what everyone thought, which is going to be a good thing for the fleet,” Richards said after the pre-race briefing.

“It’s going to be testing times for all the big boats … a very tactical race, a real mindbender.”

The race has been hit by severe storms in the past.

In 1998, six sailors died and seven boats sank during a storm that hit the fleet early on the first night of the race. In 2007, eight sailors had to abandon a sinking vessel and three others were airlifted to hospital with injuries.

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