Yachting: Wild Oats XI leads Sydney to Hobart after a full day's racing

In this handout photo released by Rolex on Dec 27, 2014, Australian yacht Wild Oats XI sails in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. -- PHOTO: AFP
In this handout photo released by Rolex on Dec 27, 2014, Australian yacht Wild Oats XI sails in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. -- PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Wild Oats XI was leading the Sydney to Hobart fleet down Australia's east coast on Saturday ahead of rival Comanche, with fellow supermaxi Perpetual Loyal out of the race.

The Cruising Yacht Club of Australia said that after 24 hours of racing, record holder Wild Oats XI was ahead of the 100-foot American newcomer Comanche, while Perpetual Loyal had retired from the gruelling 628 nautical mile (1,163km) endurance test with hull damage.

The retirement whittles the 117-strong starting fleet down to 109.

"We're not exactly sure what happened, we were coming off some big waves, but we also could have hit something during the night when we were falling off these waves," said Perpetual Loyal crewman Tom Slingsby.

Perpetual Loyal, one of five 100-foot supermaxis in the race, is the most high-profile retirement so far, with seven other smaller boats suffering broken rudders, sail or hull damage in the tough opening night.

Brindabella, a former line honours winner, was among them, pulling out after she started taking on excess water due to damage to her rudder bearings.

The choppy seas mean hopes of breaking the race record, set by Wild Oats XI in 2012 of one day, 18 hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds, have faded with the leaders behind record-breaking pace.

The brand-new, cutting-edge Comanche, owned by American technology entrepreneur Jim Clark, flew out of Sydney Harbour at the start on Friday with seven-time line honours winner Wild Oats XI hard on its heels.

But as the boats turned south on the way to the Hobart finish line they encountered choppy seas, prompting the fleet to spread out as they tried to avoid the worst of the weather.

By morning the winds had eased, giving an advantage to the slim-line Wild Oats XI, which broke away from the wider-bodied Comanche to be about 20 nautical miles ahead by late Saturday afternoon.

Comanche navigator Stan Honey said he was pleased the boats had kept each other within sight for the first day of the race.

"It makes the race more intense for both of us to have a boat nearby," he said.

"Last night we had some fairly big seas and so it was pretty sloppy - and in a wide boat like this, it flaps around a bit so that was a bit of a challenge," he said. "But it wasn't that windy and so we had a reasonable night."

More than 25 nautical miles behind Comanche is fellow supermaxi Rio 100, followed by Alive and the fifth supermaxi Ragamuffin 100, which said it had slowed down overnight to protect the boat from the rough seas.

Ragamuffin's sailing master David Witt said he believed the winds would pick up for his vessel and ensure it made the mouth of the Derwent River heading into Hobart at the same time as the race leaders, who were in a different weather patch and could suffer from a lack of wind.

"We believe the leaders are going to run into a hole and stop," he said.

The Sydney to Hobart is a famously unforgiving race that takes crews down Australia's south-east coast, across the Bass Strait and up the Derwent River.

The yachts in the Sydney to Hobart are not only racing for line honours, but the handicap award, which takes into account the dimensions of each boat, its age and other factors. Each year the race attracts boats ranging in size from 30-footers (9 metres) to 100-foot supermaxis.