Australian super maxi LawConnect snatched the lead in a dramatic start to the annual Sydney to Hobart race Sunday as a Covid-depleted fleet of 88 yachts embarked on one of the world's toughest ocean events.
Heading into the teeth of brisk southerly winds, LawConnect grabbed the front position from rival 30-metre (100-foot) super maxi SHK Scallywag from Hong Kong, which hit a major technical problem with a jib sail fitting after having led the fleet out of Sydney Harbour.
Some four hours after the race started, LawConnect was in first position ahead of another super maxi, Black Jack.
SHK Scallywag, which had to hoist a less powerful storm jib while the crew tried to effect repairs with waves crashing over them, lay in third place.
Spectator boats had crowded into a cloudy, breezy Sydney Harbour to enjoy the return of the blue-water classic, which was forced by Covid into an outright cancellation last year for the first time since it began in 1945.
The pandemic still cast a shadow, with some of the fastest yachts kept away this year, including the previous line-honours winner super maxi Comanche and nine-time line honours winner Wild Oats XI.
Four yachts withdrew over the past two days because of Covid concerns, including one that was announced less than 10 minutes before the traditional Boxing Day starting cannon.
Another yacht dropped out because of crew injury.
Among those forced out by the virus was Willow, one of the favourites for line honours, which had several crew members test positive.
That left 88 entrants, including 17 two-handed yachts, which are allowed to take part for the first time.
It was a sharp reduction from the 157 boats that set out in 2019.
- Weather, Covid threats -
Weather is a critical factor in the 628-nautical-mile (1,200-km) race down Australia's east coast to the Tasmanian capital.
Six men died, five boats sank and 55 sailors were rescued during the 1998 spectacle when a deep depression exploded over the fleet in the Bass Strait.
"For all boats, the challenge after starting and exiting the (Sydney) heads will not only be to settle into their race rhythm and watch systems, but to keep their boats intact in the tough conditions," the organising Cruising Yacht Club of Australia said.
The latest weather update predicted south to southeasterly winds Sunday with a strong wind warning offshore along the New South Wales coast.
The racers face strict health conditions including compulsory PCR coronavirus tests.
Race committee chairman Lee Goddard said Tasmanian police would allow racers to depart even if they were still waiting for their test results.
But if any crew member is informed of a positive result while on the water, their yacht will have to retire "immediately", he told sailors Sunday.
- 'Great adventure' -
Depending on the weather, the fastest super maxis are expected to arrive in Hobart sometime on Tuesday.
Though the first yacht to reach the finishing line grabs most public attention, the main prize for sailors is regarded as the handicap honours, which takes account of the size of the yachts.
In the last race, in 2019, Ichi Ban was the overall handicap winner.
Ichi Ban owner and skipper Matt Allen is sailing his 31st Sydney-Hobart race after starting at the age of 17.
"It was a great adventure doing my first race and it's a great adventure lining up ahead of number 31 as well," he said ahead of race day.
"That excitement on Boxing Day, that does not change at all. That little nervousness before the start, that sense of relief once you get out and actually start sailing the boat."