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Rough conditions expected on 1st night of Sydney to Hobart

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SYDNEY (AP) Forecast southerly winds of up to 35 knots (65 kilometers per hour, 40 mph) will create a blustery first night for 109 yachts entered in this year's Sydney to Hobart race which begins Saturday.

Weather officials told skippers Thursday that the winds will ''pack a fair bit of punch... it will make for rough conditions.''

The race was hit by gales and huge seas on the first night in 1998 when six sailors died.

The 628-nautical-mile race across Bass Strait to the Tasmanian state capital has attracted 28 international entries, including 17 from Britain.

Four 100-foot super maxis have also entered, including eight-time line honors winner and 2014 champion Wild Oats XI, skippered by Mark Richards, and American yacht Comanche.

Comanche, which finished 50 minutes behind in second place last year in its first major race, has cut its crew from 24 to 18, shedding about 500 kilograms of weight.

''We've learned how to sail her with fewer people,'' skipper Ken Read said.

One valuable addition is America's Cup-winning skipper and Sydney-born Jimmy Spithill, who hasn't raced on Comanche.

Comanche navigator Stan Honey said he and other crew have improved since 2014.

''Last year was our first race but we have done a lot of miles since then, including the Fastnet and Transatlantic races,'' Honey told The Australian newspaper this week.

Comanche was neck and neck with Wild Oats XI until the two yachts reached Bass Strait last year. Then the winds died and Wild Oats sailed off to a 50-nautucal mile lead.

When the winds picked up, Comanche, which has a wide stern, cut 40 nautical miles from Oats' lead as they both sped down the final leg of the race along the Tasmanian coast, only for the American yacht to fall short.

''We know how to sail the boat better, but very, very light air - where the sails are just slapping around - is still our weak spot,'' Honey said. ''That is also the conditions where a traditional skinny super maxi like Wild Oats excels, they seem to be able to make their own wind. We are very unhappy if it is blowing less than five knots, so we would be happy in any wind over eight knots.''

The other super maxis are Perpetual Loyal and Ragamuffin. Perpetual Loyal will have several Australian sportsmen aboard in aid of charity, including retired cricket captain Michael Clarke and rugby player Kurtley Beale.