Updated: Friday, 27 December 2013 15:46 | By Agence France-Presse

Wild Oats XI regains Sydney-Hobart lead

Favourite Wild Oats XI snatched back the lead from rival supermaxi Perpetual Loyal in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race Friday, with the duelling 100-footers surging ahead of the fleet.

Wild Oats XI regains Sydney-Hobart lead

Wild Oats XI (L) Perpetual Loyal sail out of Sydney Harbour at the start of the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race, on December 26, 2013

As they passed the halfway point of the 628 nautical mile course down eastern Australia, Wild Oats XI staged a stunning comeback to nose ahead after conceding a 10 nautical mile lead to Perpetual Loyal overnight.

By late afternoon, the two boats had broken away from most of the pack heading into the Bass Strait, which separates the mainland from Tasmania, and Wild Oats XI was leading by five nautical miles.

"This race is so unbelievable," said Perpetual Loyal's skipper Anthony Bell.

"Who would have thought that we were winning this morning when we woke up... and how quickly the lead changed when the wind just stopped."

Bell said he was still aiming for victory, but was frustrated by the light conditions, saying that rougher weather would suit his heavier and wider vessel.

"We've just got to keep the boat going and stay in contact (with Wild Oats XI) for when some wind does come up," he said.

"The only difficulty is that it seems like there is no wind anywhere."

Forecasts suggest there will be more light conditions Friday and there is no expectation that the race record of one day, 18 hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds -- set in 2012 by six-time line honours winner Wild Oats XI -- will be broken.

The two supermaxis fronted a pulsating start to the challenging ocean classic south from Sydney harbour under blue skies on Thursday.

Wild Oats XI made it through Sydney Heads first as television footage showed the boats had come very close together.

Perpetual Loyal flew a protest flag after leaving the harbour, but skipper Bell later decided after a team meeting not to proceed with the protest and went on to take the overnight lead.

While Wild Oats XI and Perpetual Loyal remain the frontrunners, they face competition from fellow 100-footers Ragamuffin 100 and Wild Thing, and Volvo 70s Giacomo and Black Jack.

Also ahead of the bulk of the pack are brand new 80-foot Botin Beau Geste and the 60-footer Ichi Ban.

"Just hanging on the coattails of some of the big boats," said Ichi Ban navigator Will Oxley earlier Friday.

"Looks like a tricky day ahead and we are hoping to hold onto favourable north-east wind (for) as long as possible.

"All going to game plan except for thunderstorms inshore last night which slowed the fleet a bit."

The fleet remains at 92 vessels, with no further retirements after two pulled out shortly after Thursday's start.

Rough weather is predicted to hit the legendary race on the weekend.

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

The Sydney to Hobart -- which sees boats track down the Australian coast from Sydney to the Tasmanian capital -- is a tactical race through challenging weather systems.

"This is the amazing thing about this race so far, tiny differences in tactics and positions have led to significant gains and losses," said Olly Cotterell, skipper of One DLL, one of 12 Clipper Round the World boats in this year's competition.

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

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