Tough conditions were taking an early toll on boats and testing the crews on the first night of the Sydney to Hobart Race as the 75 yachts pounded their way south yesterday.
Severe thunder and hail storms hit the yachts off the New South Wales coast, forcing one of the favourites, Greg Wharington's Wild Thing, out with a ripped mainsail, one of four early retirements.
Also having to replace a damaged mainsail was Ludde Ingvall's Nicorette, winner last year and looking for back to back line honours by the time the fleet makes its way up the Derwent River 48 hours away.
Ingvall had recovered from a slow start to take the lead but said he had been hit by a "buster" and hail stones "the size of golf balls". Stopping the yacht in order to make the sail change dropped him to fourth.
The first two were the leading pair of eight for whom the 630-mile run to Tasmania is just part of the third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race to Auckland, New Zealand. The overall leader, John Kostecki, in the German entry illbruck, and Kevin Shoebridge, back on track after retiring from the second leg from Cape Town with a broken rudder, were neck and neck. Five of the remaining six of the Volvo boats were all in the top 10.
All were coping with seas kicked up by a 25-30-knot south-westerly, but the wind strength was due to ease before the fleet cross the Bass Strait today.
The messy conditions at the start, where opposing winds led to a drifting lottery as the fleet headed off the start line near the Opera House, proved only temporary, although they allowed Jez Fanstone in News Corp to steal a march on his rivals and lead through the Heads.
Two shadows had cast a more sombre mood over the race and the thousands watching what is one of the traditional celebrations on Boxing Day. The first was the pall of black smoke from the forest fires raging to the south of the city.
The second was the sight of the Volvo yachts leaving their berths carrying black pennants. The normal, music-filled send-off was replaced by silence as the rivals formed a circle in Darling Harbour, observed a minute's silence, and threw wreaths into the water in memory of one of the race's great competitors, Sir Peter Blake.
Volvo Ocean Race, Leg 3: 1 illbruck (J Kostecki), Tyco (K Shoebridge) 1,999nm to finish; 3 SEB (G Krantz) 2,003; 4 djuice (K Frostad), Assa Abloy (N McDonald), News Corp (J Fanstone) 2,004; 7 Amer Sports One (G Dalton) 2,007; 8 Amer Sports Too (L McDonald) 2011.