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Duo battle for lead as storms force eight out of Sydney-Hobart

Two 100-foot supermaxis battled for the lead Wednesday in a storm-struck Sydney-Hobart race fleet reduced to 95 yachts after eight entrants pulled out of the punishing ocean event.

In a gripping late-morning struggle, LawConnect edged less than one nautical mile ahead of the favourite Andoo Comanche after a “cat-and-mouse” chase, with the lead switching throughout the night. 

The duo were left in a duel after Hong Kong-owned supermaxi SHK Scallywag, which had been in a three-way battle for the lead, became the first major casualty on Tuesday evening when it suffered a broken bowsprit.

“We are pretty close after we were neck and neck overnight,” LawConnect captain Ty Oxley said in a racing update just a couple of hours before retaking the lead.

“It’s raining and there are squalls everywhere, clouds on the horizon,” Oxley added, reporting winds of more than 30 knots, sometimes exceeding 40 knots, as the rivals sailed southwards across the Bass Strait towards the Tasmanian capital.

Andoo Comanche was first across the line last year and still holds the 2017 race record for the bluewater classic of one day, nine hours, 15 minutes and 24 seconds.

LawConnect has been runner-up in the three previous editions of the race.

Lying third, 68 nautical miles behind LawConnect, was  Alive (Tas), a 66-foot yacht skippered by Duncan Hine in a close battle with the 72-foot URM Group, captained by Marcus Ashley-Jones.

‘Lightning for hours’

Less than 24 hours after the 103-boat fleet left Sydney Harbour, eight yachts had withdrawn, most with equipment damage.

Geoff Cropley, on the Hong Kong-owned 72-footer Antipodes, said the sailors had endured “lightning and thunder for hours”.

They had been “hunkered down”, he added, with the weather slowly beginning to improve. “There is a little bit of blue sky. It’s quite nice out here.”

First held in 1945, this year marks the 25th anniversary of a violent storm that tore into the 1998 race fleet, with wild winds whipping up mountainous seas in which six people died, five boats sank and 55 sailors were rescued.

Vessels still on the water on Friday could face a southeasterly swell with waves of three-to-five metres (10-16 feet), the Bureau of Meteorology warned in a final weather briefing before Tuesday’s start.

Last year, Andoo Comanche crossed the finish line first after one day, 11 hours, 56 minutes and 48 seconds.

But the overall winner of the race under a handicap system was 52-foot Celestial, which claimed the coveted Tattersall Cup.

Another 52-footer, Caro, and URM Group are also among the favourites for overall race honours this year.

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