SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian super maxi Wild Oats XI was off to a rocky start in the 72nd Sydney to Hobart blue water classic on Monday, with the race favorite seeking a record ninth line honours victory.
Super maxi Perpetual Loyal led the way out of Sydney harbor towards the iconic Bondi Beach shortly after the starting cannon at 1pm local time (0200 GMT).
New Zealand yacht Beau Geste was just behind, with Wild Oats XI trailing after a slow start, but quickly making up time.
Hundreds of thousands of spectators had flocked to the shores of Sydney's harbor to watch the fleet of 88 yachts start out on the journey down Australia's east coast.
Covering approximately 630 nautical miles of the Tasman Sea and notoriously treacherous Bass Strait, the annual race is Australia's premier yachting event and among the world's most gruelling.
Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards was seeking redemption for his crew after high winds tore their mainsail and forced them to retire last year, along with almost a third of the entrants.
Wild Oats had won the three previous races, and a record eight overall. There is also added significance for Richards for the 2016 race, with long-time yacht owner Bob Oatley dying in January this year.
Near perfect weather conditions are predicted and yachtsmen have suggested the race record could be in danger of being broken.
Wild Oats XI took line honours in one day, 18 hours, 23 minutes, 12 seconds in the 2012 race.
Celebrities and leading sporting figures are amongst the crews, however Perpetual Loyal, who last year sailed with former Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke on board, have this year recruited a crew of experienced sailors in an effort to boost their chances.
Strong north-easterly gusts of up to 25 knots were expected to build throughout Monday, providing the larger super maxis with steady pace down wind to break out from the rest of the fleet as they head along the New South Wales Coast.
The race attracts a range of international entrants from across Europe and Asia, including the first Korean entry this year. Maluka, a 30-foot wooden boat built in 1932 is both the smallest and oldest entrant in the race.
The leaders are expected to cross the finishing line in Hobart, the capital of Australia's island state of Tasmania, on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Jarni Blakkarly; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)