HOBART, Australia (AP) — Perpetual Loyal led fellow super maxi and defending champion Wild Oats XI in what turned into a two-yacht duel Friday in the Sydney to Hobart race.
Perpetual Loyal led by three nautical miles nearly 24 hours into the race and approaching the halfway point of the 628 nautical mile trip to Hobart, the capital of the island state of Tasmania.
Another super maxi, Ragamuffin 100, was 20 nautical miles behind in third.
Based on current weather forecasts, the winner was expected to reach Hobart on Saturday evening, well off Wild Oat XI's race record set last year of 1 day, 18 hours, 23 minutes, 12 seconds.
Race officials also warned of worsening conditions and gale-force winds late Saturday for the slower and smaller yachts still sailing across Bass Strait from the Australian mainland.
In 1998, six sailors died and five yachts sank in a storm that hit the fleet early in the race.
Perpetual Loyal navigator, American Stan Honey, said the crew made the best of poor conditions overnight Thursday night.
"Last night we were further out to sea and that paid off," Honey said on Friday. "We are pleased to be in the hunt, because light air is not our strong point and it's been light all night."
Perpetual Loyal has among its crew London Olympics laser gold medalist Tom Slingsby, the Australian who was strategist on the winning Team Oracle USA boat at this year's America's Cup. Also on board is Jessica Watson, the Australian who four years ago became the youngest person to sail around the world solo and unassisted as a 16-year-old.
Wild Oats XI navigator Tom Addis acknowledged his boat, attempting to win the race for a record-equaling seventh time, had a lot of work to do to finish ahead of Perpetual Loyal.
"It was a messy night, pretty benign, 15 knots as the maximum," Addis said of the light winds. "There were a lot of storms off the coast and we got tangled in the tail end of them."
Wild Oats XI is owned by wine mogul Bob Oatley, who is heading the Australian challenge for the next America's Cup and is the Challenger of Record through his Hamilton Island Yacht Club.
There were 94 starters, including 22 from outside Australia, and two retirements by midday Friday due to equipment and rigging failures.
The overseas contingent included 12 boats from the Clipper Round the World race, which for the first time included the Sydney to Hobart as the sixth race of its 16-race schedule.