Sydney-Hobart crown at stake as jury hears protest

Sydney (AFP) –


The official winner of this year's dramatic Sydney to Hobart yacht race could be determined as early as Thursday, as an international jury assesses the fate of supermaxi Wild Oats XI after her record finish.

Wild Oats surpassed last year's record time by several hours when she crossed the finish line late Wednesday, but her ninth line honours victory remains in the balance after second-placed LDV Comanche lodged a protest.

The battle between the 100 footers was the highlight in the fast-paced race, as competitors sped down Australia's east coast in the 628-nautical mile (1,163-kilometre) bluewater classic, aided by favourable winds.

Comanche owner-skipper Jim Cooney said the complaint was about a near collision between his super-yacht and Wild Oats, which appeared to tack too late when exiting Sydney Heads on Tuesday.

"It was a port/starboard infringement. We were the right-of-way boat. They were the give way boat... and they left it until far too late to tack and they tacked right in our water," Cooney said.

"We had to take evasive action or possibly take both of us out of the race. We could have taken their backstay out, they could have broken our bowsprit."

An international jury in Hobart will assess the evidence against Wild Oats from 3.00pm local time (0400 GMT), with a decision likely later Thursday, organisers told AFP.

With Comanche finishing just 26min and 34sec behind Wild Oats' record of 1 day, 8hrs, 48min and 50sec, a possible punishment such as a time penalty could affect which crew eventually lifts the trophy.

Wild Oats skipper Mark Richards was "not concerned" about the protest, saying he believed the incident was "totally innocent".

"We should be able to defend ourselves against that situation pretty clearly," he added.

Attention was also turning Thursday to the Tattersall Cup awarded to the overall winner, with Matt Allen's new TP52 Ichi Ban among the favourites.

Smaller boats Patrice (Ker 46), Concubine (Mills 45) and Chutzpah (Caprice 40) were also in the running.

The handicap honour goes for the vessel that performs best according to size, giving smaller boats a chance to prove their worth in what is regarded as one of the world's toughest yacht races.

"This is the best Hobart race I have ever done -- it was exhilarating -- I reckon we surfed at 28 knots. I've never seen conditions like it," owner-skipper Allen said after Ichi Ban finished Thursday morning.

"I think the breeze is lightening off though, and they (Tattersall Cup challengers) won't come home as fast as we did."