Defending champion Wild Oats XI has snatched the lead over fellow super maxi Perpetual Loyal, as the two yachts duelled for line honours in the Sydney to Hobart race.

Perpetual Loyal led by 10 nautical miles before Wild Oats XI made its move on Friday.

With the yachts at the halfway point of the 628-nautical-mile trip to Hobart, the capital of the island state of Tasmania, Wild Oats XI had taken a lead of five nautical miles.

Another super maxi, Ragamuffin 100, was nine nautical miles behind in third.

Based on current weather forecasts of very light winds at the finish, the winner was not expected to reach Hobart until early on Sunday, well off Wild Oat XI's race record set last year of 1 day, 18 hours, 23 minutes, 12 seconds.

Perpetual Loyal had earlier flown a protest flag shortly after the start, but Perpetual Loyal skipper Anthony Bell said they had decided not to make it official.

Race record

"We've had a meeting and decided not to proceed with the protest," Bell said.

"At first we thought we had been fouled (by Wild Oats XI), but in a sense we had not."

There were 94 starters in this year's race, including 22 from outside Australia.

The overseas contingent included 12 boats from the Clipper Round the World race, which for the first time is including the Sydney to Hobart as the sixth race of its 16-race schedule.

There were two early withdrawals from the back of the fleet due to equipment failures.

Wild Oats XI set the race record of 1 day, 18 hours, 23 minutes, 12 seconds last year when it also won handicap honours.

Skippered by Mark Richards, Wild Oats XI is owned by wine mogul Bob Oatley, who is heading up the Australian challenge for the next America's Cup and is the Challenger of Record through his Hamilton Island Yacht Club.

Race officials warned the Sydney to Hobart fleet to expect gale-force winds and waves of up to 12 metres on Saturday.

Source: AP