Comanche held a lead over fellow American yacht Rambler in the Sydney to Hobart but damage to both boats could make for a tense finale to the race.
After eight-time winner and defending champion Wild Oats XI pulled out with a torn mainsail on Saturday night and another Australian entry Perpetual Loyal also withdrew, line honours has opened up for the international raiders.
Jim Clark’s supermaxi Comanche passed Rambler on Sunday afternoon and gradually increased her margin as the pair crossed Bass Strait.
But news of wounds to the lead boats and the prospect of calmer waters along Tasmania’s east coast means the Australian yacht Ragamuffin and Italian-flagged Maserati are still strong chances.
Skipper Ken Read said Comanche “hit something” overnight, causing rudder damage. Retirement was considered but the crew chose to push on.
“We decided to punch on through,” Read said. “We think we can get to Hobart safely. I don’t care if we limp over the line – we are going to finish this damned race.”
Rambler’s navigator Andrew Cape said the 88-foot craft hit a submerged object about 1pm (AEDT), damaging the starboard daggerboard which can no longer be moved, limiting speed.
“It’s upwards all the way to Tasman [Island] so we’ve still got a lot of pain to come unfortunately,” Cape said by phone.
Rough overnight conditions took a toll on the fleet and by the end of day one there were 24 casualties – about 20 per cent of the race field – had pulled out.
Cruising Yacht Club of Australia commodore John Cameron couldn’t recall the last time there were so many early withdrawals.
“It’s the wind, but in this case we’ve also got the wind against current and that’s making the sea stand up and creating a terrible sea state for these boats to travel through,” he told reporters in Hobart.
“And it’s the sea state which is causing most of the damage on these yachts ... they’re powering through these waves, coming out the other end, then dropping feet before they hit the water.”
A crew member on board Black Jack suffered a broken leg, race officials said. The 70-foot Queensland boat, carrying a crew of 12, withdrew from the race about 11am (AEDT) on Sunday, and was en route to Jervis Bay on the NSW south coast where the patient will be treated at a naval base.
Officials have no detail about how the injury was sustained.
As the fleet moves south they can expect calmer weather with a breeze moderating to about 20 knots.
Cameron said the race record of one day, 18 hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds won’t be broken, and thinks the first boat will cross the finish line at Hobart’s Constitution Dock on Monday afternoon.
Not since 2001 when Swedish boat Assa Abloy took line honours has an international entry won the race.
“It would be good to see another international boat keep that record going,” Cameron said.
After making it back to Sydney, a shattered Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards was philosophical about retiring for the first time in the boat’s 10-year history.
“We had a failure and that’s the way it is. Get on with life and start planning for next year,” he said.
Perpetual Loyal also returned to Sydney with a broken rudder.