Ellison in pursuit of record

Stuart Alexander reports on the first skirmishes in the Sydney- Hobart race
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Talk of a new record for the Sydney to Hobart race was buzzing round Australia last night as a new American yacht, the 75-foot Sayonara, owned by Larry Ellison, with Rupert Murdoch as one of his crew, hammered its way south.

Ellison's closest rival was the 69-foot Foxtel Amazon, skippered by Peter Walker and sponsored by Murdoch's cable channel in Australia. Foxtel Amazon used her blistering downwind performance to close to within 200 metres after seven hours averaging 12.48 knots.

Murdoch's interest in yachting extends back to the 1960s, when he competed in the Sydney-Hobart race with his yacht, Ilina. He was also a spectator at this year's America's Cup in San Diego on his massive ketch.

The target for the 630 miles to the capital of Tasmania is the time of two days 14 hours 36 minutes and 56 seconds set in 1975 by another American, Jim Kilroy, in his maxi, Kialoa III.

Boosting Ellison's chances was a 15 to 19 knot north-easterly, which allowed him to set a giant spinnaker as soon as his new Bruce Farr-designed yacht turned the corner out of Sydney harbour. He had led the fleet of nearly 100 yachts, watched by a huge crowd of Sydneysiders enjoying their annual Boxing Day sail past, away from the start at 1pm, chased by a local man George Snow, whose Brindabella was given extra power by two extra metres of new mast, carrying bigger sails. Third was the 85-foot Fudge, formerly Bill Koch's Matador2.

Once into the Pacific Ocean swell, Sayonara settled to her work knowing that the favourable winds were forecast to continue for another 24 hours. Even though the winds were then likely to move to the south, it was expected only to be for a short time before they swung helpfully into the west.

Having less of a joyful start to what is also the finale of the Southern Cross Cup was the three-boat British team. They were lying last of the eight competing for the trophy, which used to be fought for as fiercely as the Admiral's Cup, and were not improving much in the early stages.

Sancho Pansa, Hans Hensel's 50-footer, was lying fifth in the IMS Division B. Andrew Strachan's '97, which took the line honours in the gale-torn 1993 race when all the big boats were knocked out, was eighth in Division C. Bright Morning Star, skippered by Hughie Treharne, was ninth in Division D. The series is led by the Australian national team.