Top sailors call it Hell on High Water. This year, the race lived up to its name

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The Independent Online
HOPES OF finding four missing sailors including a British Olympic competitor had all but disappeared last night after the worst disaster to hit the yachting world in two decades.

Officials called off the search for Glyn Charles, who was washed overboard from his yacht, Sword of Orion, during the notoriously tough Sydney to Hobart race. Two other sailors were confirmed to have died, while a further three were still missing.

"The search for Glyn Charles has been called off and his family have been notified of that decision. The area was searched thoroughly and there was simply no point in carrying on," said a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. "It is now nightfall and we are assuming he has drowned. He has been out there in 10-metre waves and 80-kilometre winds. He will be a superman if he makes it."

By last night, 67 boats - well over half the starters - had abandoned the race and were heading for safe harbour, with dozens arriving at the New South Wales port of Eden. Many of the crew members were in tears as they stepped ashore from their battered yachts. All were exhausted.

David Evelyn, of the Wheelhouse Restaurant, overlooking the harbour, said: "All the crews have been saying it's the worst seas they have seen. Ambulances rushed to the dock to take the wounded to hospital. Many people were in shock. It has been pretty chaotic."

With six sailors either dead or missing, presumed drowned, and 56 needing to pulled from the sea, this year's Sydney-Hobart race is the worst disaster to hit the yachting world since the 1979 Fastnet race, which claimed 15 lives.

A total of 115 yachts left Sydney three days ago for a classic race across 630 miles of formidable seas to the Tasmanian capital. Nicknamed "Hell on High Water", it is a race famous for its severity.

Veterans - including the former prime minister Ted Heath, who won in 1969 skippering Morning Cloud - tell of mountainous waves, winds of 80mph and hours spent struggling to cover just a few miles.

But it is also a race that attracts the world's best sailors and those who passed under Sydney Harbour bridge at 1pm on Boxing Day knew what they could expect.

As the hours passed, however, so the conditions worsened. The crews were lashed by winds of up to 80 knots and swells of almost 10 metres. For many it rapidly became a battle for survival.

Throughout the day the storm continued to build, culminating in hurricane- force winds which, survivors said, turned waves into "mountains". Coupled with cruel tides, the gale sent 13-metre-high walls of water crashing over the yachts every 30 seconds, leaving 23 sunk or abandoned.

"It is not a race for beginners," said Ashley Cargill, 33, navigator with the India Pacific - one of more than 40 crews who turned back and headed for Eden.

"We are a pretty seasoned crew and we knew what to expect but these were easily the worst conditions we have experienced. We had 62-knot winds coming across the deck and waves of more than eight metres. The boat was getting knocked about all over the place. Four of our crew were seasick. I think the boat would have been fine but the crew were exhausted."

Knowing that conditions would be even worse when they entered the Bass Strait in the "Roaring Forties", the crew decided at 1pm on 27 December to turn back. It took them 12 hours to cover the 45 miles to Eden.

Others were not so fortunate. Six members of the crew of the Winston Churchill, which was built in 1942, were winched to safety from life-rafts but three of their colleagues had earlier been swept into the sea.

Two sailors from the Business Post Naiad, which had lost its mast, died after a nine-metre wave smashed into the yacht. One died from a heart attack, the other drowned after being swept into the sea still attached to his lifeline.

Glyn Charles, 33, from Emsworth, Hampshire - an Olympic sailor who had taken part in four Admiral's Cup events - was washed overboard from his 43ft yacht when it rolled at about 8.30am GMT on Sunday.

Rescuers, including helicopters crews using thermal imaging equipment and seven Australian Air Force planes, searched for him for more than 24 hours before abandoning their efforts.

He was swept overboard after Sword of Orion lost its mast and capsized, flinging crew members into the sea.

Last night Sayonara - owned and skippered by the US computer executive Larry Ellison, and with Lachlan Murdoch, the son of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch - was leading the race, ahead of the defending champion Brindabella.