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Maxis duel in Sydney-Hobart race

Skanida, winner of the 2003 race, is favored to take line honors again in 2004.
Sydney (Australia)
Ludde Ingvall
Nokia Corporation

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Dueling super-maxi yachts Skandia and Konica Minolta are battling heavy conditions as they lead the Sydney-Hobart ocean race fleet across Bass Strait Monday.

The two 30-meter (98-foot) yachts entered Bass Strait together at about 2:00 a.m. Monday (1500 GMT Sunday) and are now expected to reach the finish line Tuesday afternoon.

That would put them well outside the race record of one day, 19 hours, 48.02 minutes set in 1999 by the Danish-Australian entrant Nokia.

A southerly change is making conditions uncomfortable for smaller boats in Bass Strait as they make the often treacherous crossing between the Australian mainland and Tasmania. So far, 12 of the starting fleet of 116 boats have retired.

Less than a kilometer separates the two race leaders, with New Zealand-based Konica Minolta just ahead of last year's winner Skandia.

Last year, Konica Minolta, which raced under the name Zana, trailed Skandia by just 14 minutes at the finish after a race-long duel.

The race began at 1.10 p.m. local time Sunday (0210 GMT), with a spectacular start on Sydney Harbor that was watched by more than 300,000 spectators jamming vantage points on the foreshores.

Hundreds of small spectator boats accompanied the fleet for the 20-minute run to Sydney Heads, where the yachts turned south for the arduous 628-mile (1163-kilometer) race to Hobart.

Though conditions for the start were virtually ideal, the weather has since deteriorated and the Weather Bureau issued a gale warning Sunday night for southern coastal waters.

Along with Skandia and Konica Minolta, the other main contender for line honors is Nicorette, a brand new 27-meter (90-foot) yacht that has yet to be tried in rough conditions but is running third. Skipper Ludde Ingvall won in 2000 with an earlier version of Nicorette.

Skandia had been expected to be first through the Sydney Heads, but was just headed by Nicorette, with Konica Minolta in third place. The bigger boats quickly hoisted their spinnakers for the run south.

A smaller maxi, AAPT, is in fourth place. An early retirement was one of the other top contenders, Targe.

While the fastest boats will take about two and a half days to complete the race, some of the smaller boats will take four to five days.

In a final briefing for entrants Sunday morning just before the start of the race, the weather bureau said conditions had eased a little, but crews could still expect a rough, uncomfortable time for much of the race.

The bureau said there were still two south-westerly fronts headed towards Bass Strait -- traditionally the roughest, toughest part of the event.

Weather is always a crucial factor in the event.

In the tragic race of 1998, when massive seas struck the fleet, six sailors lost their lives, 55 crew had to be rescued and only 44 of 115 boats completed the race.

Bruce Dover, skipper of the 14-meter (44-foot) EZ Street, told CNN just before the start of the race that it would be a challenging time for the competitors, particularly for the smaller boats at the back of the fleet.

"We are in for a bumpy ride," he said

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