Defending champion Wild Oats XI takes early lead

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SYDNEY (AP) -- Defending champion Wild Oats XI was first out of Sydney Harbour on Thursday as it attempts to win the Sydney to Hobart yacht race for a record-equaling seventh time.

Wild Oats XI held a slender lead over another 100-foot super maxi, Perpetual Loyal, as the fleet headed into open ocean and the Tasman Sea.

Perpetual Loyal was flying a red protest flag after reported contact between the two yachts while still in the harbor. The yachts then covered each other's movements in the first hour, setting up what could be virtually a two-yacht match race to the island state of Tasmania.

There were 94 yachts entered 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 was one early withdrawal -- Audi Sunshine Coast, with rigging damage.

Wild Oats XI set the race record of 1 day, 18 hours, 23 minutes, 12 seconds last year when it also won handicap honors. 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 meters (40 feet) on Saturday. While the bigger boats, including the five super maxis, should be finished before the bad weather hits, the smaller and slower boats might have problems with the large seas.

In 1998, six sailors died and five boats sank in rough seas during the worst weather in the race's 68-year history.

"Treacherous conditions as far as the winds and the waves go," Bureau of Meteorology official Andrew Treloar said at the final pre-race weather briefing Thursday.

Vicky Ellis, of Bristol, England, will be at the helm of the yacht Switzerland. She's the only woman skipper in the Clipper race and one of two in the Sydney to Hobart, the other being Stephane Howarth on the Sydney 38 Mille Sabord. The pair will compete for the Jane Tate Memorial Trophy for first woman skipper to cross the line.

The race covers 628 nautical miles, or 1,163 kilometers (723 miles). The fleet moves down the southeast coast of the Australian mainland, then across the often treacherous Bass Strait to Tasmania. The final portion of the race sees the fleet move up the Derwent River and to Constitution Dock in Hobart, the state capital.

Perpetual Loyal skipper Anthony Bell has flown in American navigator Stan Honey, who masterminded the 2011 line honors win of Bell's previous boat. Another crew member on Bell's yacht this year is 2012 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.

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, is also aboard Perpetual Loyal.