Yacht race death toll rises to six

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THE DEATH toll in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race rose to six yesterday as rescuers retrieved two bodies of crew members from the oldest vessel in the race, the Winston Churchill, after searching for survivors round the clock.

Naval helicopters spotted a life-raft with two crew members clinging to it. Another three were swept away as the inflatable disintegrated in winds gusting up to 80 knots.

The boat had completed 17 Sydney to Hobart races, but her skipper, Richard Winning, had installed a new aluminium mast as part of a pounds 100,000 refit which pierced the original wooden hull, causing the Winston Churchill to sink within 10 minutes.

Mr Winning was among a group of four picked up earlier from the vessel's second life raft which, he said, capsized at regular intervals in the heavy seas: "That was truly frightening. One minute there would be four of you up there, and the next minute you're upside down, and one of you has to get under water to right the thing with the other three sitting inside."

Of the three men lost from Mr Winning's boat, the bodies of John Deane and Mick Bannister were pulled from the sea. A third, Jim Lawlor, was declared missing, presumed drowned.

Glyn Charles, the British Olympic yachtsman, has also been presumed dead after being washed overboard from his boat, Sword of Orion.

Meanwhile the race leaders were limping into port at Hobart having negotiated the worst conditions in the 54-year history of the event. The winning skipper, the American computer billionaire Larry Ellison, said his yacht, Sayonara, had itself been damaged while crossing the Bass Strait which separates Tasmania from mainland Victoria.

He had realised that smaller vessels, following in Sayonara's wake, were in for a rough time: "This was a phenomenal boat, with a phenomenal crew, totally prepared for this event. Weekend yachties out there, it's crazy. They're in deep, deep, deep trouble."

Asked if they would enter the race again, Mr Ellison said: "Not if I live to be a thousand." However, one crew member, Graeme Freeman, said: "I've said I won't, but there's always that desire there to do it."

With calmer conditions yesterday, dozens of yachts were continuing the race or making their own way back to shore. The Solo Globe Challenge was declared missing when her radio failed and she remained out of contact for 24 hours. A naval frigate searching for survivors found her yesterday morning, heading back to Sydney with an improvised sailing rig. One crew member, Kier Enderby, needed treatment to two broken ribs.

The Sydney Cruising Yacht Club, which organises the event, announced an inquiry under a former commodore, Peter Bush. The present commodore, Hugo van Kretschmer, said there was a need to "unravel and debrief" and to find out why, after more than 50 years with just two previous fatalities, six people had lost their lives.