Sailing: Skipper tells of great escape: Stuart Alexander reports from Sydney on a sailing drama that ended happily after a six-hour ordeal

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The Independent Online
A YACHTSMAN yesterday described how he was spotted at night by an oil tanker after being washed overboard during the Sydney to Hobart race. John Quinn, the 49- year-old skipper of MEM, spent six hours in storm-whipped seas.

Quinn, a veteran of 13 previous Sydney-Hobart races, told how a huge wave had flattened his new 35-foot yacht and snapped his safety harness. He was not wearing a life-jacket, but had a buoyancy aid under his oilskins.

As the mayday response was co- ordinated, a tanker, the Ampol Sarel, joined the search. Her captain, Bernie Holmes, said: 'He was a very lucky guy. We heard a shout and one of the seamen shone a searchlight from the bridge and picked up a reflective flash from his jacket and sprayhood.'

The dismasted yacht Atara, which had been heading back to Eden on the southern coast of New South Wales, was called in to make the pick-up. 'I was bloody lucky to get out when I did,' said Quinn, who went over the side in the Bass Strait at 11pm local time. 'I wouldn't have lasted much longer. I really got the shakes towards the end and some cramps in my legs.

'I saw MEM a couple of times, but they fell a bit short,' he said of his crewmen, who were searching in the dark for their skipper. The boat came within 200 metres but 'it was very hard to see me'. Quinn had to be treated for hypothermia. 'He was quite weak when we pulled him out of the water,' John Storey, Atara's skipper, said.

'There are horrendous seas out there and very strong winds. The rescue of a yachtsman from the sea at night is nothing short of a miracle,' Leigh Minehan, the race organiser, said.

The storms which have made the 49th Sydney-Hobart one of the worst in its history yesterday defeated the leader and favourite, George Snow's new pounds 1.2m IMS maxi Brindabella, which retired with a damaged bow. Snow was forced to take cover in the shelter of Flinders Island after the yacht had taken a pounding in the Bass Strait from winds still gusting from 40 to 50 knots and swells piling up into 30ft waves.

That brought the number of retirements to 68 out of Sunday's 106 starters, though one was dismasted just before the starting cannon fired.

Meanwhile, the Franco-Australian 70-footer Bobsled Societe Generale leads the race. She is designed as a downwind specialist but, with the French America's Cup skipper Yves Pajot and the Whitbread Race winner Lionel Pean aboard, she has seen off her rivals and should see the welcome peace of the finish line up the Derwent River today.

SYDNEY-TO-HOBART RACE: Leading positions: 1 Bobsled Societe Generale. IMF Division: 1 Micropay Cuckoo's Nest; 2 Hartz Mineral Water; 3 Ninety-Seven. IOR Division: 1 Impeccable; 2 Sheraton Hobart; 3 Solbourne Wild Oats.