Sailing: Early retirements in Sydney-Hobart race, holder Comanche leads

An aerial view shows Comanche in action during the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race in Sydney, Australia on 26 Dec, 2018.
An aerial view shows Comanche in action during the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race in Sydney, Australia on 26 Dec, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (AFP) - Defending champion Comanche was leading the gruelling Sydney to Hobart ocean race down Australia's east coast on Wednesday (Dec 26) afternoon following a slow start out of a hot and glittering Sydney Harbour.

The 100-footer Comanche 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 race including 10 international entries.

Thousands of spectators had lined the harbour and watched on boats as the yachts sped away earlier on Wednesday under clear blue summer skies and aided by 10-15 knot north-easterly winds, with Comanche lagging behind its large rivals when exiting Sydney Heads.

But the yacht skippered by owner Jim Cooney soon hit the front, travelling at 30 knots, closely followed by supermaxis Wild Oats XI, Infotrack and Black Jack.

Medium north-easterly winds were pushing the fleet down the coast, but conditions were expected to weaken on Thursday.

The notoriously wild Bass Strait between Tasmania and the Australian mainland in particular is looking to serve up erratic conditions, with crews 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," said strategist Iain Murray of eight-time line honours 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." .

Awkward conditions

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.

"I think the leaderboard is going to change a lot through the course of this race," he said.

"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.

On Thursday, the crews will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1998 edition of the race, where a fatal storm saw six sailors lose their lives, with a moment of silence and the reading out of a commemoration message.