EXPERIENCED yachtsman last night predicted more than 100 yachts would retire from the gale-lashed Sydney-Hobart race before its finish.
Gale-force winds already have caused more than 70 of the 155 starters to quit.
As the leading yachts yesterday crashed through huge seas and southerly winds near Bass Strait, structural damage, mast breakages, torn sails, injuries, fatigue and seasickness were taking an enormous toll.
Conditions were deteriorating as the fleet approached Bass Strait and race officials feared a massive overnight retirement of competitors.
There were reports of squalls in excess of 70 knots in Bass Strait.
The silver-hulled Kiwi maxi. New Zealand, skippered by Peter Blake. was pressing on last night at the head of the fleet.
When we flew over the yacht off Moruya yesterday massive waves were sweeping her deck and she was down to using her next to smallest sails.
New Zealand has been built for next year's Whitbread Round The World yacht classic and when we saw her the heavy equipment on board was meeting the challenge.
But that wasn't the case for so many other supposedly high technology ocean racing yachts.
The Sydney sloop Too Impetuous returned to the Cruising Yacht Club yesterday with a large crack in her topsides. caused by her plunging from the tops of mountainous seas into troughs. Cruising Yacht Club of Australia general manager and Hobart race veteran, Mr Mike Polkinghorne, blamed construction techniques for the high level of retirements this year.
"These yachts are built from the very latest space age materials," he said. "It's obvious now that many of the people building them have not come to terms with this space age technology."
One retired yacht, the maxi Condor, had fittings designed to carry the cables from the steering wheel to the rudder torn from the hull.
When owner Bob Bell stepped onto the dock from Condor he said that he did not believe the yacht was built too lightly. "We push these boats to the limit and every now and then something has to break," he said.
When the dwindling fleet reported positions to the race centre last night, New Zealand was leading by 10 nautical miles from Spirit of Queensland.
The Sydney maxi Vengeance was third, ahead of Time Suspect, Die Hard, Bewinched, Scallywag H and Indian Pacific.
Party spirit belies the heartbreak
IT definitely wasn't Hobart but at the Cruising Yacht Club in Sydney yesterday the atmosphere belied the fact that 70 entries had retired from the ocean racing classic.
And as a press conference called to discuss the retirements began upstairs, CYC general manager Mr Michael Polkinghorne battled to speak above the sound of a rousing Chuck Berry song coming from the bar below.
As the list of casualties grew, some returned crewmen were enjoying the sun, joking and joining in a singalong.
Richard Chapman, a crew member from Too Impetuous, which retired with structural damage, said: "It's all part of ocean racing.
"It's very disappointing - they're out there trying their hearts out but you've just got to take it as it comes."
Helmsman struck by falling mast
From KEVIN WHALAN in Wollongong
A HELMSMAN from the Sydney-Hobart yacht race competitor Andromeda was taken to hospital after the crippled boat limped into Wollongong Harbor yesterday.
Sean Langman, 22, of Sydney suburb Rhodes, was asleep on the cabin floor after his watch when the mast broke in a huge swell, spearing into his head as it fell.
Andromeda's owner, Mr Gerard Mieli, and his crew cut free the rest of the mast and hurled it into the sea before heading the boat towards Wollongong under motor.
Mr Langman was in a satisfactory condition last night with concussion and lacerations.
No one else aboard the yacht was injured.
Mr Mieli, of Sydney, estimated damage to the $120,000 yacht at $30,000, and said he would be competing again next year.
The other helmsman, Kevin Johnston, said the winds were about 30 knots and he thought the Andromeda was going well until it lost its mast.