Sailing: Brindabella leads way

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THE AUSTRALIAN maxi Brindabella took the lead in the Sydney-Hobart race yesterday as three yachts fought out a potentially record-breaking charge down Australia's east coast.

Brindabella, the pre-race favourite, sailed to the front of the 80-strong fleet about six hours after losing a tactical battle to the rival Wild Thing at the start in Sydney Harbour. Magna Data, which resembles a giant flat-bottomed skiff, had earlier led Brindabella by about 500 metres after covering 90 nautical miles but suffered a tear in its spinnaker.

The lead boats revelled in ideal conditions with a strong north-easterly wind behind them. This put them on track for a possible record for the 630 nautical mile race, a feat which would help erase memories of last year's race in which six sailors died.

All had been peaceful in the harbour as one of the biggest- ever crowds and spectator fleets saw one of the smallest number of competitors in recent years make their way out. The target time is the 2 days 14hr 7min 10sec set by Germany's Hasso Plattner in Morning Glory in 1996.

The Bureau of Meteorology had issued a strong wind warning, including gusts of up to 45 knots in the Bass Strait between mainland Australia and Tasmania. But the average was 20-30 knots, much less than last year's 50-60 knots which led to the death, among others, of the British Olympic yachtsman Glyn Charles. Of the 115 starters last year, 44 finished.