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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Small Sloop Wins Sydney-to-Hobart

SYDNEY -- The small Sydney sloop Ninety Seven survived mountainous seas and mast-snapping 70 knot gales to win the 1008-kilometer Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race and become the smallest boat to take line honors in 40 years.


The 14.3-meter Ninety Seven took four days 54 minutes 11 seconds to complete one of the toughest races in the event's 49-year history.


After pounding into southerly headwinds for almost the entire race, Ninety Seven crossed the finish line Thursday in the Derwent River under a blue and white spinnaker.


"We raced to win and when the wind came up a bit heavy we slowed down a little," said owner and skipper Andrew Strachan.


"It was a good race, not hard, although we had breezes up to 70 knots one night," he told reporters after docking.


"It was a good event, we were well prepared and we sailed it as we should with a little caution when the wind came up to that strength and we survived very well with the only damage being to the headboard of the mainsail," he said.


The 12.2-meter Cuckoos Nest, steered by Australia's winning America's Cup tactician Hugh Trehane, finished second, two hours behind Ninety Seven. Both Ninety Seven and Cuckoos Nest are vying for handicap honors.


Wild Thing took third.


The fierce winds and huge 11-meter seas savaged the fleet, sinking two boats and forcing 67 of the 105 yachts to retire with broken gear or damaged hulls.


Race officials estimated the damage bill for yacht owners at close to Australian $3 million (US$2 million).


One skipper was washed overboard and survived six hours in the wild seas before being rescued. In 1984 rough weather claimed the life of one crewman and forced the retirement of 104 of 150 yachts.


Veteran ocean racer Syd Fischer, who was forced to retire his boat Ragamuffin after it started to delaminate, said the conditions were worse than those he endured in the disastrous 1979 Fastnet race in Britain in which 15 sailors died.


"It was pretty wild out there," Fischer said Thursday. "In the Fastnet race we had a 40-foot wave crash over us but this time the waves were just as big and they were more persistent."


Strachan defended race organizers for not calling off the race in the face of media criticism after a skipper was swept overboard.


"We are here to sail and enjoy it and this is part of the challenge," Strachan said. "This is an ocean race, it is conducted by a club that is very experienced and the person that made that statement really has rocks in their head.


"They should go judge tennis or dancing, not judge ocean racing," Strachan said to the cheers of his fellow sailors.


As Ninety Seven crossed the line, the 11.6-meter Wang issued a distress call saying it was likely to lose it's keel and was taking water.


Race director Greg Halls said two yachts standing picked up the crew, while the official race vessel towed the yacht to safety.


The atrocious conditions forced out all the big boats favored to take line honors, leaving victory to the smaller yachts which had been nursed through the wild weather.


By late Wednesday, after three days of battling the elements, Ninety Seven and Cuckoos Nest entered a tactical duel for line honors, with Ninety Seven hugging close to the Tasmanian coast while Cuckoos Nest opted to head out to sea.


Cuckoos Nest's tactics paid off, halving Ninety Seven's lead overnight, but Ninety Seven could not be caught once she hoisted a spinnaker.


Ninety Seven, a 33-1 outsider and in her debut long ocean race, is the smallest yacht to win line honors since the 11.8 meter Solveig in 1953. Not surprisingly given the adverse conditions, the 1993 race was also one of the slowest in 20 years.


The race record of two days 14 hours 36 minutes and 56 seconds was set by American maxi ketch Kialoa in 1975.