Sydney, Australia: Eight-time line honours winner Wild Oats XI was leading the gruelling Sydney to Hobart ocean race down Australia's east coast Wednesday, as a key rival withdrew from the contest with damage.
The 100-footer Wild Oats XI is among four supermaxis vying to be the first yacht to cross the finish line in Hobart, after Hong Kong's Scallywag withdrew from the race with a broken bowsprit.
TP52 yacht Zen also retired with damaged rigging, leaving 83 yachts left in the often brutal 628-nautical mile (1,163-kilometre) race, including 10 international entries.
Thousands of spectators had lined Sydney Harbour and watched on boats as the yachts sped away earlier Wednesday under clear blue summer skies and aided by 10-15 knot north-easterly winds.
Black Jack was the first supermaxi to sail past Sydney Heads, before defending line honours champion Comanche, skippered by owner Jim Cooney, hit the front, travelling at 30 knots.
Comanche forged ahead as medium north-easterly winds pushed the fleet down the coast, but slipped to fourth as Wild Oats XI took the lead in the evening closely followed by Infotrack, another supermaxi, and Black Jack.
Conditions were forecast to weaken on Thursday, with the notoriously wild Bass Strait between Tasmania and the Australian mainland in particular tipped to serve up erratic conditions.
Crews said they were expecting a tactically challenging contest as they try to avoid windless holes.
This means Comanche's race record of one day, nine hours, 15 minutes and 24 seconds, set last year for the bluewater classic, should remain intact.
"The real issue is linking all the bits of wind up," strategist Iain Murray said Wednesday of Wild Oats XI ahead of the race.
His boat was first to Hobart in 2017 but was stripped of the win after being handed a one-hour penalty over a near-collision.
"There will be light spots and spots where there is not much wind.
"I think the boats that keep continuously moving fast (will benefit)... the difference between going fast is going five knots, or 10 knots or 12 knots and if you do that for a couple of hours it is a big difference."
The tricky conditions also mean the race to grab the handicap honours -- which goes to the vessel that performs best according to size -- is wide open, said owner-skipper Matt Allen of yacht Ichi Ban.
Allen's TP52 was last year's overall handicap winner, and he is bidding to claim back-to-back victories in one of the world's toughest yacht races.
"I think the leaderboard is going to change a lot through the course of this race," he said Wednesday.
"So any plans we've got now are going to change through the course of the race. It's a real tactician's strategy race."
While Ichi Ban remains the handicap favourite, smaller boats like 40-footer Chutzpah and RP51 Primitive Cool were also faring well in the conditions.
Also in the hunt is 66-footer Wild Oats X -- the sister yacht to Wild Oats XI -- which is carrying the race's first all-female professional crew, and Winning Appliances with father-son team John Winning and John Winning Jr.
The Winnings are dedicating their journey to the six sailors who lost their lives in a devastating deep depression in the Tasman Sea two decades ago, which was one of Australia's worst sporting disasters.
Winning Sr.'s cousin Richard Winning was the skipper of the yacht Winston Churchill, which lost three sailors and sank in that storm.
On Thursday, the crews will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1998 tragedy with a moment of silence and the reading out of a commemoration message.