Wild Oats XI leads Sydney to Hobart race

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The race fleet head towards Tasmania as Wild Oats far right, leads them out of the heads after the start of the Sydney Hobart yacht race in Sydney, Australia, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)


SYDNEY (AP) — Favorite Wild Oats XI led a 76-yacht fleet out of Sydney Harbour on Wednesday and held a four-nautical-mile lead over fellow super maxi and defending champion Ragamuffin Loyal on the first night of the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

With spinnakers up, the fleet weaved its way around thousands of spectator craft in the harbor before heading out to the Tasman Sea for the 628-nautical-mile race south to the island state of Tasmania.

Wild Oats XI held its lead over Ragamuffin Loyal, while Lahana was in third place as the yachts sailed down the coast of New South Wales state into a strong southerly wind. Ichi Ban was fourth, followed by Black Jack and Loki.

Many yachts were reporting bigger waves and swells than were initially forecast.

"At the moment we are all paying the rent," Jennifer Wells, navigator of the 27-year-old Farr 43, Wild Rose, said on the race's website. "All the crew are soaked," she added. "I'm the navigator, so I'm below decks, and even I'm soaked."

The leaders were well off the 2005 record pace of Wild Oats XI (1 day, 18 hours, 40 minutes, 10 seconds), although they were expected to gain speed if the forecast northerlies arrived on Thursday.

"It's a hard tactical race," Ichi Ban sailing master Michael Spies said. "There won't be too much sleep for the decision-makers."

Ragamuffin Loyal is skippered by 85-year-old Syd Fischer, who is taking part in his 44th Sydney to Hobart race.

Two hours before the start, officials said super maxi Wild Thing, the 2003 line honors winner, would not be allowed to compete because it had not provided necessary documentation following hull modifications.

Cruising Yacht Club of Australia commodore Howard Piggott said the boat's owner had failed to provide paperwork after the length of the yacht's hull was extended from 98 feet to 100.

"The race committee has worked with the owner of the boat to allow him up to three hours prior to the start of race to provide the documentation required," Piggott said. "However, this has not been forthcoming. The race committee has no option but to not accept the entry of Wild Thing."

Wild Thing has not raced since being modified.

"We are absolutely devastated to be told at the 11th hour that we are unable to race to Hobart," Wild Thing skipper Grant Wharington said. "We're a bit stuck for words as to why it happened."

Wharington said he had his cellphone switched off during a pre-race briefing to his crew when Piggott tried to call Wednesday morning.

"As everybody turned their phones back on just before 11 o'clock (two hours before the race), hundreds of messages from everybody saying, 'It's all over the press, we've been knocked out,' and we were absolutely dumbfounded," Wharington said.