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Wild Oats Leads Sydney Hobart Fleet Out Of Harbour

Wild Oats XI leads Rolex Sydney Hobart fleet out of the harbour

From the opening seconds of the 63rd Rolex Sydney Hobart Wild Oats XI, the pre-race line honours favourite led the fleet down Sydney Harbour but prowling along the exclusion zone boundary and matching Wild Oats XI, at least to the first turning mark, was Mike Slade's City Index Leopard.

"We will have a great race with them," said Ian Burns, Wild Oats XI's navigator this afternoon as they scooted down the New South Wales coast in a 15-17 knot nor'easter which is expected to build during the afternoon.

It was a spectacular 1pm start watched by hundreds of thousands of spectators lining the foreshores and on spectator craft of varying sizes. Under a bright summer sky seemingly full of news helicopters, in a cool 10-12 knot northeasterly breeze, Wild Oats XI chose the leeward end of the northern start line, in clear air downwind of rival British maxi City Limit Leopard.

As City Index Leopard made the approach to the first running mark, Wild Oats XI held their course well beyond the buoy, not tacking until they were sure they could cover the UK maxi.

The two maxis clawed their way out of the Harbour in a whirlpool created by spectator boats desperately trying to keep up with the 30m monsters; Wild Oats XI slowly built on her lead, rounding the marker buoy a mile off the Heads at 1:15pm with City Index Leopard giving chase, rounding less than a minute astern.

With her huge Code Zero unfurled and with a couple of daring helicopter pilots circling its towering mast, Wild Oats XI hit 20 knots of boat speed further out to sea while City Index Leopard chose a course closer to the coast, as did Grant Wharington's Skandia in third place.

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Roger Sturgeon's American STP 65 Rosebud lay in fourth place, emphatically declaring that she is a boat to watch in the battle for handicap. With the forecast conditions it is widely believed that the overall winner will come from this size range, the American revelling in the conditions right from the crack of cannon fire and opening up a clear and early break on local boats Yendys, Quantum Racing and the TP52s Wot Yot and Ragamuffin.

A big ebb tide caught many on the second start line out. A total of 12 jumped the start with many taking some time to respond to the radio call to return and re-start. After being recalled, Palandri Wines Minds Eye, the smallest in the 82 boat fleet was the last to leave Sydney Harbour. Unfortunately, Jim and Mary Holley on the Lake Macquarie boat Aurora, never responded to the race committee's call to return to the start line and they have continued on their way.

Steve Humphries' West Australian S&S 34 Huckleberry rounded the sea mark at 1:42pm, the last of the fleet not recalled to the start line.

Alan Brierty's Limit was a late starter due to a problem encountered overnight on the other side of the country. Brierty's red eye flight out of Perth last night was delayed, then delayed again and he was forced to make the dash from Sydney airport to the start line after his flight landed at 12.38pm, just 22 minutes before the 1pm cannon was fired by Michael York from aboard Aussie One.

This afternoon sailing master Roger Hickman advised that Limit got underway at 1:17pm this afternoon "in lovely clear air and a clear lane" and that they were about to pass the last of the boats which started off the second start line. Hickman and the crew were enjoying lunch while the "big fella is having a cigar", to settle the nerves no doubt.

Mike Freebairn's resplendent Spirit of Koomooloo, formerly Margaret Rintoul II made its Rolex Sydney Hobart comeback today after last competing in the stormy 1998 race. - Lisa Ratcliff/Jim Gale


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