Sydney to Hobart yacht race cancelled for first time in 76 years

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The Sydney to Hobart yacht race has been cancelled for the first time in 76 years

Australia's gruelling Sydney to Hobart yacht race was called off for the first time in its 76-year history on Saturday because of an escalating coronavirus outbreak, organisers said.

The often brutal 628-nautical mile (1,163-kilometre) bluewater classic was due to start on Boxing Day, but with parts of Sydney locked down after a new cluster of Covid-19 cases, it was cancelled.

"We are bitterly disappointed to cancel the race this year especially considering the plans and preparations we had put in place to have a Covid safe race," said Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA) commodore Noel Cornish.

"We were so well prepared to run the race and we're only six days from the start. This is the first time in 76 years that the race will not be conducted."

The decision to pull the plug came the same day authorities in Hobart announced plans to impose a 14-day quarantine requirement on all travellers from Sydney.

It came as a cluster of new coronavirus cases on the city's northern beaches, where many crew members are based, grew to 38 and residents were ordered to stay at home until at least midnight on Wednesday except for essential reasons.

Government officials also pleaded with the rest of Sydney's more than five million residents to remain home as much as possible over the coming days.

Cornish said that with the advice unlikely to lift in the immediate future and the immense logistics involved in trying to reorganise a race with around 100 entrants, it was decided to cancel rather than postpone.

"This race has a long and proud history and we look forward to continuing this exciting tradition next year," he added.

- 'Done the right thing' -

Australia has recorded over 28,000 Covid-19 cases and 908 deaths linked to the virus in a population of about 25 million, and had been applauded for its success in containing it until the latest outbreak.

With coronavirus concerns hovering over the race in recent months, organisers had decided to press ahead but with a smaller fleet and fans encouraged to watch online instead of thronging vantage points.

It was already shaping up as different to normal with a host of international competitors unable to make the journey to Australia and all team briefings being held online.

Parties usually held at the CYCA in the lead-up had been ruled out and restrictions placed on the spectator fleets that usually accompany the yachts as they sail out of Sydney Harbour.

Supermaxi Comanche won line honours in 2019 while Ichi Ban was the overall handicap winner after the yachts headed down Australia's east coast before tackling the treacherous Bass Strait towards Hobart.

"A week ago it was looking really good. The club has done the right thing in terms of trying to hold the race but if it has to be cancelled so be it," multiple winner and Ichi Ban skipper Matt Allen told Sydney's Daily Telegraph.

"The health of people and not spreading the virus is the main thing, more than the operation of a sporting event."

Storms are part and parcel of the punishing race, first run in 1945.

Six men died, five boats sunk and 55 sailors were rescued during the 1998 event when a deep depression exploded over the fleet in the Bass Strait.