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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Defending line honours champion Wild Oats XI was the biggest casualty among the plethora of vessels forced to retire overnight as heavy winds decimated a Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race fleet being led by U.S. entry Rambler 88 on Sunday.
Comanche was in second place behind George David's boat, the American yacht battling on despite briefly retiring from the race after suffering rudder damage, then electing instead to make running repairs.
As the leaders headed into the Bass Strait, Syd Fischer's Ragamuffin 100 was in third place but conditions are predicted to change dramatically as the field moves south.
Winds are forecast to drop substantially from the 40 knot gusts experienced overnight that caused more than 10 boats to abandon the race. Australia's Wild Oats XI, which hoped to break its own record for a ninth line honours victory, retired with a torn mainsail after falling victim to a sudden southerly change of winds.
Other boats suffered hull, mast, steering and deck damage but although the number of retired yachts grew steadily on Sunday morning, all crews are so far reported safe.
On arrival back at Sydney, Wild Oats XI's skipper Mark Richards vowed to try again in 2016, denying that modifications carried out to the yacht earlier this year had anything to do with its early departure.
"We were in the middle of a really dark rainsquall," Richards told reporters. "We lost the main engine of the boat, which was the mainsail. So it was just all over.
"It could be anyone's race," he added. "Whoever wins it, it's going to be a well deserved winner, that's for sure."
Among the other boats forced out was Perpetual Loyal, whose crew included former Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke.
Organisers said one yacht emerging as a potential dark horse was the Italian yacht Maserati, which had moved up to fourth place and appeared to be gambling on skirting the treacherous southerly course.
Reporting by Chris McCall; Editing by John O'Brien