Sailing: Crew airlifted to safety as Hobart race takes toll

Six crewmen airlifted to safety, two yachts dismasted, one sunk and six others retired were the initial casualties of the 628-mile Sydney to Hobart race off the east coast of Australia.

Worst hit was the 98-foot maxi of New Zealander Charles St Clair Brown, which was just about to change course when a fitting on the forestay failed and the mast crashed backwards into the cockpit. It could have crushed the crew as they waited to complete the manoeuvre, but they were spared when the twin steering wheels and the winches broke the fall.

Even so, David Mundy had to be airlifted off in a stretcher with a broken leg. Three others were taken to Moruya Hospital by helicopter and two were taken ashore to Batesman's Bay in a police launch.

"The boat was going very nicely in a 28-knot breeze and a sea that was lumpy but nothing extraordinary," said one crewman, Ian Treleaven. "I think we were incredibly lucky no one was killed." He was knocked unconscious by the boom hitting the back of his head, but he and all except Mundy were later released from hospital as the yacht was motoring to Jervis Bay.

A more orderly transfer involved the crew of the British Army yacht, the 67-foot Adventure, which went to the aid of the 41-foot Australian yacht Koomooloo. It sprang a leak 60 miles off Narooma and sent a mayday call. Appropriately enough, the Royal Corps of Signals crew responded and diverted to take off the Koomooloo crew by life raft.

In Sydney, Mike Sanderson and the crew of ABN Amro One, dismasted on the first night, were expected to arrive back under motor while the race was still being led by Bob Oatley's Wild Oats XI.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was hoping to reach Fremantle today to complete the first, 12-mile leg of the Velux 5 Oceans singlehanded round-the-world race. The 67-year-old may well have taken 68 days for the trip and was looking forward to a festive drink to celebrate third place - but he will also have to start preparing the 60-foot Saga Insurance for the next leg, to Norfolk, Virginia.

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