Originally created 12/31/98

Inquiries to follow Australian race disaster



SYDNEY, Australia -- With some claiming organizers had 24 hours warning of potential danger before a massive storm turned deadly, two inquiries will be held into the yacht race.

Winds up to 90 mph and 35-foot seas carved a path of destruction through the annual Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race this week. After recovering the bodies of four sailors, Australian authorities gave up hope of finding two other missing racers Tuesday, ending one of their largest maritime rescue operations.

The government of New South Wales ordered a coroner's inquiry, and the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the race organizer, also will investigate the disaster. The inquiries are certain to focus on what weather information was passed on to the crews.

Of the 115 yachts in this year's race, 70 boats withdrew because of the hurricane-strength winds. Rescuers saved about 50 sailors from seven stricken craft.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on Tuesday quoted a weather bureau source as saying the yacht club and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority were given 24-hour notice of the approaching storm.

The source, who was not identified, said the information was passed on two hours after the race began Dec. 26.

Richard Winning, owner and skipper of the sunken yacht Winston Churchill, admitted that he had been told that conditions would be bad.

"I think we were given adequate information," Winning said.

Three members of his crew were among those killed, and Winning vowed never to race again.

"I personally won't; my decision's pretty well made up," he said Tuesday.

American billionaire Larry Ellison, who won the race on his 80-foot yacht Sayonara, said he didn't know whether he'd go ocean racing again.

"I may reassess my attitude," he said. "It will take a little time to place this in perspective."

Peter Bush, the yacht club's immediate past leader and head of its inquiry, defended the club's decision to hold its own investigation, which will be conducted in private with the report made public later.

"I don't think by any stretch of the imagination that you want to assume that this is not going to be an objective review," Bush said.

"The single most important aspect all the way along in this process, in the history of this race, is to make sure that we make this event and all our yacht racing as safe as humanly possible," he said.

He said the inquiry would consider whether the race should have been abandoned when the storm hit, but said it was a difficult call.

"Had we called the race off when we were aware of the strength of those conditions, little else could have happened other than what happened because these guys were already on the race course," he said.

"And for us to say, `OK guys, all stop racing and go home,' they're still out there, they've still got 100 or 30 or 50 miles to get to shore, and it's not actually as simple as that."

The yacht club's current head, Hugo van Kretschmar, said he had opposed abandoning the race because of the conditions and said it was run under international rules leaving the responsibility with the skippers.

The bodies of two members of the Winston Churchill, Jim Lawler and Michael Bannister, were recovered Tuesday.

Two other sailors, Bruce Guy and Phil Skeggs from Business Post Naiad, were killed when their yacht rolled over Sunday during the peak of the storms. Before they were rescued, crew mates strapped the two bodies to the boat, which was towed 75 miles back to shore. The floating coffin docked Tuesday afternoon.

British Olympic Games sailor Glyn Charles, who was washed off the deck of the Sword of Orion yacht Sunday night, and Australian John Dean, a Winston Churchill crew member, were still missing and presumed dead. The Maritime Authority abandoned its search Tuesday afternoon.

Dean had told his family that when he died he wanted his ashes spread at sea.

"It looks like he has got his wish," said Dean's 15-year-old son Peter. "At least he died doing something he loved."