SYDNEY - Supermaxi Wild Oats XI won a record-equalling seventh Sydney to Hobart race on Saturday, coming in well ahead of her nearest rival as she stormed across the finish line.
The yachts had struggled with the uncharacteristic lack of breeze in the early stages of the 628 nautical mile ocean race, and Wild Oats XI's time of two days, six hours, seven minutes and 27 seconds was well short of her 2012 course record.
Wild Oats XI's billionaire owner Bob Oatley told reporters at Constitution Dock he was initially worried his 100-foot boat, skippered by Mark Richards, would not win.
"(We were) worried until we got across the line today because it is such a difficult race you. You never know how it's going to happen," the 86-year-old said.
"We lost the lead the first night out with difficult weather conditions. Then we were happy to pick it up again and improve on it which we have done all day."
Hundreds of people lined the docks at Hobart's Constitution Dock to welcome the eight-year-old boat which is affectionately known by its crew as the 'Swiss Army knife' because of the number of appendages she boasts.
It was its seventh line honours victory for Wild Oats XI, which also crossed the line first every year from 2005 to 2008 and in 2010 and 2012. It equals the record of the boat Morna, later renamed Kurrewa IV, which last won in 1960.
As Wild Oats XI crossed the line on Saturday, its nearest rival was fellow supermaxi Perpetual Loyal about 30 nautical miles behind, followed by Ragamuffin 100 a further 10-plus nautical miles behind.
Other challengers had been two Volvo 70s - Giacomo from New Zealand and Black Jack from Queensland - along with Karl Kwok's brand new 80-footer Beau Geste from Hong Kong and Wild Thing, another 100-footer.
Wild Oats XI had led a thrilling neck and neck race out of Sydney Harbour on Boxing Day but was overtaken by Perpetual Loyal on the first night, only to stage a dramatic comeback on Friday to snatch back the lead.
Skipper Richards said this start had been disappointing, saying the race itself had been "draining".
"It was a really tough race," he told reporters in Hobart. "We fell a long way behind Loyal... but the next morning it all just started to come through. The boat was flying."
The boat outpaced the rest of the 91-strong fleet all the way to Hobart, gaining pace as she neared the end and reaching speeds of up to 35 knots, and Oatley said she would remain a contender in future years.
"We've got a great future, more wins. It's beautiful, it's wonderfully built," he said.
With winds picking up, most of the mid-sized boats in the fleet are expected to cross the Bass Strait Saturday before forecast gale force winds come through in the evening. However, the smaller and slower boats will bear the brunt of expected rough weather as they make their crossing in subsequent hours.
Organisers expect the winds will continue through the notoriously variable final stages of the race, when boats often battle maddeningly calm conditions up the Derwent River to Hobart's Constitution Dock.
So far only three boats have retired from this year's race - Audi Sunshine Coast, Dodo and Wilparina - reducing the field to 91.
Last year Wild Oats XI bagged a historic second triple crown in crossing the line first and winning the overall handicap, as well as setting a new record time of one day, 18 hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds.