Australian maxi Wild Thing hit a spectator boat in the opening dash of Sunday's Sydney to Hobart race in a dramatic start

Storms, powerful winds and huge seas have been forecast for the ride
down Australia’s southeast coast, with two southerly fronts to buffet
the 87-strong fleet, dashing hopes of a new race record.

Thing burst into contention early, determined to set the pace after
mast problems forced it to retire last year just moments after the
starting cannon was fired, which was preceded by a devastating capsize
in 2004.

It seemed for a moment as though history might repeat
Sunday when the 30-metre maxi clipped a spectator boat six minutes into
the race.

Fortunately the damage appeared to be limited and race
organisers said skipper Grant Wharington — 2003 line honours winner –
was “back hunting the lead.”

Four-time line honours winner Wild
Oats XI led the pack out of Sydney Harbour in just under 14 minutes and
set a cracking pace down the coast, closely followed by super-maxi
Investec Loyal and Wild Thing.

Wild Oats, the current record
holder, is widely tipped to be first over the finish line late Tuesday,
while Britain’s Ran, owned by Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom, is
favoured as overall winner of the coveted handicap honours.

the changeable conditions mean the race is essentially anyone’s, with
the first southerly bluster to hit the fleet late Sunday followed by a
second, stronger front at dawn, bringing robust headwinds and steep,
choppy seas.

“The fleet can expect 20-30 knots,” forecaster
Michael Logan said of the evening wind change. “Monday, winds will
surge up the New South Wales coast and by 5:00pm there will be a strong
southerly for up to 12 hours,” he added.

Gales of up to 40 knots
have been tipped for the notorious Bass Strait, where yachts will
battles waves of up to five metres (16 feet).

The conditions are
not expected to be anything like the deadly 1998 edition in which five
yachts sunk and six people died, but race veteran Richard Grimes said
it would be a challenging contest.

“It will be more of a wind
game plan, especially early on. The trick is to not screw up on the
first night, or you’re gone,” said Grimes, navigator of Australia’s
Terra Firma.

“The third part of the race is the approach and
timing to the Tasmanian coast. If you can get all those things right,
then you’re in with a chance.”

The field, which includes 30
first-time starters and entries from the United States, Britain,
Russia, Italy and France, is expected to battle it out at the finish,
with winds set to drop off on Tuesday and the ocean to calm.