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Sydney to Hobart looking like another 2-yacht race

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SYDNEY (AP) Defending champion Wild Oats XI and American entry Comanche are again expected to fight out line honors in this year's Sydney to Hobart race, after last year's finish when the Australian yacht beat her 100-foot rival by 55 minutes to claim an unprecedented eighth title.

Fellow super maxis Ragamuffin 100 and Perpetual Loyal should also contend to be the first boat to reach Hobart, as will another American vessel, Rambler 88.

The 628-nautical-mile race begins early Saturday afternoon in Sydney Harbour and is expected to end two to three days later in Hobart, the capital of the island state of Tasmania.

In between, the 109 yachts, including 27 foreign entries, will sail down the south coast of New South Wales state and across the often treacherous Bass Strait. Forecast southerly winds of up to 35 knots (65 kilometers per hour, 40 mph) and thunderstorms could create a blustery first night.

The foreign contingent includes 12 yachts from the Clipper Round the World race, which features the Sydney to Hobart as part of its eight-leg, 16-race program.

Last year, Comanche, a wide-bodied yacht which prefers stronger winds, led the fleet out of the harbor and for much of the early part of the race. But light winds hit the fleet in Bass Strait, allowing Wild Oats to take a big lead which the American boat nearly overcame when the winds picked up again before the finish.

Comanche has one big-name addition to its crew: America's Cup-winning skipper and Sydney-born Jimmy Spithill, who hasn't raced on the yacht.

''Last year we had a few issues with a few bits and pieces which weren't repaired until Christmas Day,'' skipper Mark Richards said. ''So we were out there checking a few things on Christmas Day. It's a bit more relaxed this year. Whether it's a good sign or a bad sign, I'm not quite sure.''

The German crew of Haspa Hamburg, which celebrated Christmas on the docks at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, was encouraged by the predicted tough conditions on the first night, followed by lighter winds for the remainder of the race.

''We've got some strong headwinds on the first night which this boat really loves, and then we've got no wind, which is pretty good for half of the crew because they are more or less dinghy sailors,'' skipper Johan Schultz said. ''They are used to sailing with no wind. So half the crew likes the storm, the other likes the calm. So everybody's happy.''