Defending champion Wild Oats XI out of Sydney to Hobart race

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SYDNEY (AP) — Defending champion Wild Oats XI was forced to retire from the Sydney to Hobart yacht race late Saturday due to sail damage while leading American super maxi Comanche also was damaged but remained in the race.

A team spokesman said Wild Oats XI's mainsail was split in half by wind squalls of up to 44 knots (81 kph, 50 mph) off the New South Wales state south coast. All crew members were reported safe and the super maxi was returning to Sydney.

Comanche, which led the yachts out of Sydney harbor, had also initially decided to retire with a broken rudder but the yacht's crew later changed its mind and decided to continue the race while making repairs at sea.

Another American yacht, Rambler 88, took over the race lead with Comanche second and another super maxi, Ragamuffin 100, in third. Twelve hours into the race, Rambler led Comanche by two nautical miles.

The fourth super maxi in the fleet, Perpetual Loyal, also had a broken rudder and withdrew. Its crew, which included former Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke and Australian rugby player Kurtley Beale, was also returning to Sydney, among 10 boats in the original 108-yacht fleet which had retired.

The 71st Sydney to Hobart race originally had featured a record 27 international challengers, including 12 yachts from the Clipper round the world race which are using the Hobart race as one of its competition legs.

"Early reports indicate that the sail tore in half when the yacht was hit by a 40-knot squall that accompanied a southerly change off the NSW south coast," said the Wild Oats XI statement.

Wild Oats XI, skippered by Mark Richards, is the most prolific winner in the race's history with eight line honors wins, and set the race's fastest time in 2012 of 1 day, 18 hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds. It underwent extensive renovations this year.

Tasmanian boat Cougar II returned to Sydney after an incident with Lupa of London left her without an entire corner of her stern. No one was seriously hurt, although one sailor suffered facial cuts. English entry Lupa also later retired.

Chinese boat Ark323, on her Sydney to Hobart debut, came back with a crack in the deck after a collision with a rival yacht, while a forestay snapped off the top of the Perth-based M3's rig.

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