Collisions knocked two yachts out of the fleet within the first hour of the 2002 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race start from Sydney Harbour this afternoon, with a crewmember being knocked over the side from each boat.
The Tasmanian yacht Valheru, skippered by Tony Lyall, suffered extensive hull damage in a resounding collision with the French Australian entry, Peugeot Racing, as they crossed tacks just outside the Heads.
The hull of Valheru has been sliced open on the port side, a gaping hole that has opened up the entire cabin below deck.
Crewmember Peter Fletcher was thrown into the sea, but was picked quickly up by an Australian Yachting Federation inflatable dinghy and put back on the yacht.
The collision apparently happened as Peugeot Racing attempted to bear away astern of Valheru and the mainsheet jammed. Peugeot Racing was not extensively damaged and continued racing after taking a penalty turn as the boat at fault.
The only Queensland yacht in the race, Trump Card, skippered by Craig Coulsen from Brisbane, also retired after being holed in the stern by the Sydney yacht Loki at the start in pouring rain and 50-metre visibility.
Crewmember Richard Cowen was knocked through the rails and dragged for 50 metres with his head in the water.
Meanwhile, the race favourite Alpha Romeo is leading the fleet down the coast followed by the British entrant, Canon, Nicorette, Grundig, Brindabella and Merit, sailing in a 16-knot south-easter and lumpy 2 to 3 metres seas.
Alfa Romeo was south of Port Hacking with Canon close astern, the leaders averaging 10.3 knots to windward in a 14-16 knot easterly breeze.
Despite heavy rain and poor visibility one of the largest spectator fleets in years watched line Romeo lead the British maxi Canon out to sea at the start of the 630 mile Sydney Hobart Race.
In moderate Easterly winds, Alfa Romeo staged a perfect start to windward of her British rival as the fleet reached towards the first mark at the heads. The two boats reached speeds of 15 knots as they dragged raced down the harbour, with Neville Crichtons ghost grey maxi rounding the mark 22 seconds ahead of Canon.
Third was Grundig, followed by Australian Skandia Wild Thing, Nicorette, Brindabella and Merit navigator.
With seas an uncomfortable chop best described as like a washing machine the boats tacked out to the seaward mark before easing sheets for a more comfortable reach south, when Alfa Romeo quickly built on her lead.
As the feet reaches down the coast the wind is expected to swing to the North East, which will allow the yachts to set their spinnakers for a fast run down the NSW coast until the reach a mild southerly front expected late Friday.