Hong Kong supermaxi Sun Hung Kai Scallywag was one of two early retirements from the Sydney to Hobart on Wednesday, as Comanche surged to the front after a mediocre start.
The fleet of 85 was reduced to 84 just over two hours into the race, when TP52 Zen withdrew with rig damage and headed to Wollongong.
Little more than an hour later Sun Hung Kai Scallywag pulled out with a broken bowsprit leaving the four Australian supermaxis to fight it out for line honours.
Skipper David Witt admitted before the race that he wasn’t sure how the boat would perform.
“We have modified the boat so much. We actually are not 100 per cent sure how we are going to go,” Witt said.
“We could be a lemon. We could be a strawberry. I don’t know yet.”
Comanche was sixth out of Sydney Heads, but zoomed through the fleet.
Just over three hours into the race she was flying along at 27 knots and had opened up a lead of four nautical miles, with InfoTrack, Wild Oats XI and Black Jack all close together, disputing second spot.
As forecast, the north-easterly winds picked up in strength as the afternoon progressed.
“It’s going to be up to 25, even 30 knots tonight,’ Cruising Yacht Club of Australia commodore Palu Bellingham told AAP after the start.
“Some of those 50 and 60 footers will be loving this.”
While Comanche was on pace to break her 2017 race record of one day nine hours 15 minutes 24 seconds, that seemed unlikely to happen with conditions expected to lighten on Thursday.
For the second straight year, Black Jack was first out of Sydney Heads, rounding the mark in just over 13 minutes, ahead of InfoTrack and Wild Oats XI.
Sun Hung Kai Scallywag was next followed by the 60-footer Winning Appliances, which has two-time world surfing champion John John Florence aboard.
“I think it will be pretty miserable at times, but I’m pretty excited for the whole thing overall,” Florence told AAP before the race.
“Just to be a part of it and to be learning from these guys is really cool.”
No boats broke the start as the fleet set sail on a hot afternoon watched by a large spectator fleet.
“It was a fantastic start, beautiful day,” Commodore Bellingham said.
“A steady 15 knots of breeze probably a little bit windier than we thought to start with. Everybody was clean (at the start).”
Former federal Liberal Party deputy leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop started the race on the 66-foot Wild Oats XI and as planned she disembarked well inside the first hour.
Army sailing boat Gun Runner, the smallest contender in the fleet, was the last competitor to clear the heads.