SYDNEY (AP) -- Super maxis held three of the top five positions in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race Thursday with defending champion Wild Oats XI trailing Perpetual Loyal by three nautical miles late on the first day.
Wild Oats XI, attempting to win the annual race for a record-equaling seventh time, was first out of Sydney Harbour ahead of Perpetual Loyal, both 100-foot yachts. But Perpetual Loyal overtook Wild Oats XI about six hours into the race.
Rounding out the top five, the top boats were followed by New Zealand yacht Giacomo, super maxi Ragamuffin 100 of Australia and Hong Kong-registered Beau Geste.
Perpetual Loyal had flown a protest flag shortly after the start, but later decided not to make it official.
"We've had a meeting and decided not to proceed with the protest," Perpetual Loyal skipper Anthony 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 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 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 England was at the helm of the yacht Switzerland, which was in 54th place and about 50 nautical miles behind the leaders late Thursday. She's the only woman skipper in the Clipper race and one of two in the Sydney to Hobart.
Ellis said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that Switzerland needed to make up ground after being slow at the start.
"It's going very well now, but it wasn't one of our better starts," Ellis said. "But the yachts we are overtaking now are bigger than us, so I hope we'll be moving up overnight."
Noting the bad weather forecast for late Saturday, Ellis said: "I'm hoping we'll be finished by then."
The race to Hobart 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 the island state of Tasmania. The final portion of the race sees the fleet move up the Derwent River and to Constitution Dock in Hobart, the Tasmanian capital.
Bell, the Perpetual Loyal skipper, flew 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 Olympic 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, was also aboard Perpetual Loyal.