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Wild Oats XI grabs lead position; Perpetual Loyal flies protest flag

SYDNEY -- Wild Oats XI was first out of the harbor in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race Thursday, but rival supermaxi Perpetual Loyal was flying a protest flag after the neck and neck start.

Sunny conditions prevailed as the 94 boats took off on the challenging 628 nautical mile race south, with six-time line honors winner Wild Oats XI and fellow 100-footer Perpetual Loyal racing fast from the starter's gun.

Wild Oats XI made it through Sydney Heads first but Perpetual Loyal was not far behind. It is not known why Perpetual is flying its protest flag but footage showed the boats coming close to each other while in the harbor.

The famous race is expected to be hit by strong weather in coming days, with the bumpy conditions dampening hopes of breaking the course record of one day, 18 hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds.

Crews have been warned they face gale-force winds and waves of up to 12 meters when a cold front hits the fleet on Saturday night — with the smaller and slower boats expected to experience the worst of the weather.

“Treacherous conditions as far as the winds, and the waves go,” the Bureau of Meteorology's Andrew Treloar said.

The Sydney to Hobart — which sees boats track down the east coast of Australia from Sydney to the Tasmanian capital of Hobart — is a tactical race in which sailors usually navigate varying weather systems.

Wild storms saw six sailors perish in the 1998 edition, with five yachts sinking and 66 retiring from a fleet of 115.

This year, the larger and faster boats will likely have passed the Bass Strait before the front hits, and Perpetual Loyal skipper Anthony Bell said the starting conditions were probably lighter than he would have liked.

“We probably wouldn't mind the front coming down on us a bit earlier,” said Bell. “It certainly looks like lighter conditions for the big boats.”

The fleet was reduced to 93 on Thursday after Audi Sunshine Coast retired within the first hour with rigging damage, the organizing Cruising Yacht Club of Australia said.

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This handout picture taken and provided by Andrea Francolini shows an aerial view of the Rolex Sydney to Hobart race as Clipper Around the World Fleet leaves Sydney Harbour on ...

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