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Skippers Rue Australia Yacht Race

December 30, 1998

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ The skipper of the sunken yacht Winston Churchill vowed Tuesday never to race again after the deaths of his close friends, and even American billionaire Larry Ellison questioned whether he would ever compete again on the open seas.

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-ever maritime rescue operations.

Of the 115 yachts in the race this year, 70 boats withdrew because of the hurricane-strength winds. Ten yachts were abandoned.

Amid claims race organizers knew of the potential danger 24 hours before the massive storm, two planned inquiries were announced into the world’s worst yachting disaster since the Fastnet race off Ireland in 1979, in which 15 sailors died.

``I personally won’t (race); my decision’s pretty well made up,″ Richard Winning, the owner and skipper of the Winston Churchill, said as he recovered from his ordeal in Merimbula, 250 miles south of Sydney.

His 56-year-old yacht, an entrant in the inaugural 1945 Sydney-Hobart classic, was abandoned Sunday night and the nine crew climbed into two life rafts.

Winning and three crew mates were winched to safety Monday night after hanging onto a life raft that flipped repeatedly for 24 hours in the howling winds. On Tuesday, they found out that three of their colleagues _ Jim Lawler, Mike Bannister and John Dean _ were dead after a wave swept them out of the second life raft.

Winning said he was sure when they were spotted by rescuers Monday night that everyone would survive.

``When I went to bed I thought these blokes would be here tonight, if not tomorrow morning,″ he said. ``Two of them have been my mates since I was a young fella ... It’s shocking to lose your mates like this.″

Glyn Charles of Britain and Australians Bruce Guy and Phil Skeggs were also killed in the storm, Australian authorities said. The bodies of Charles and Dean have not been found.

The government of New South Wales has ordered a coroner’s inquiry, and the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the race organizer, will also investigate the disaster.

The inquiries are certain to focus on the weather and what information was passed on to the crews.

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

Ellison and his 80-foot yacht Sayonara crossed the finish line in Hobart on Tuesday to win the famed race for a second time, but the chief executive officer and founder of software giant Oracle Corp. found this reception infinitely different from the one in 1995.

The spectator fleet was smaller, the crowds at the dock thinner than usual Tuesday. The traditional three cheers for the winner were hesitant. The fireworks, cannon and champagne reception were canceled. The trophy presentation was postponed for five days.

The 54-year-old Ellison was also a changed man.

``It wasn’t a race,″ he said. ``We were not focused on a race, we were focused on getting this boat here in one piece and every one of the crew here.″

As he looked back on the ordeal, he said: ``This is not what it’s supposed to be about. Difficult, yes. Dangerous, no. Life-threatening, definitely not.″

Ellison even admitted 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.″

He said he has already promised to join media mogul Ted Turner in next year’s Fastnet _ the 20th anniversary of the race that claimed so many lives.

``Ted did the Fastnet in ’79,″ Ellison said. ``I want to talk to him about that. He didn’t race much after that. Right now I’m not anxious to go back and do another ocean race.″

Prior to this week’s carnage, there had been only two reported deaths in the 54-year history of Australia’s greatest yacht race. The 725-mile race starts the day after Christmas and attracts top-class sailors from around the world.

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