CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: American outfit Comanche sails to an early lead in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, heading for a southerly front overnight.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: American outfit Comanche sails to an early lead in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, heading for a southerly front overnight. Rob Griffithaap

Sydney to Hobart: Comanche leads depleted fleet

UPDATE: US super maxi Comanche is leading a depleted Sydney to Hobart fleet towards Tasmania, with a race finish expected later today.

The Americans - Comanche and Rambler 88 - continue to lead the fleet despite both yachts suffering damage.

Wild weather battered Comanche on the first night, and Rambler 88 hit something in the water yesterday and is "limping" along in second place.

Overnight Comanche has extended its lead to about 17 nautical miles as the yachts head down Tasmania's north-east coast.

The leading two yachts have been hampered by damaged rudders and weakening winds, but are expected to reach the River Derwent this evening.

More on this at ABC

EARLIER: CASEY Smith is hoping to become the first Sunshine Coaster to win both line and handicap honours in the Sydney to Hobart since Greg Gilliam in 1997 - but it all depends on the weather.

His chances of realising that dream on board Comanche hinged on his ability to navigate the overnight southerly front that was expected to hit the frontrunners.

The former Queensland champion was born in Nambour and cut his teeth sailing along the Coast before landing a gig on Sydney to Hobart winner Wild Thing.

He raced on the famous boat 10 times in Sydney to Hobarts, but had moved to America by the time it won in 2003.

Now Smith is back in Australia with the US Comanche team, which he has been a part of since day one.

He was captain of the boat when it narrowly lost to Wild Rose, but mum Linda Smith, a Coast resident, said he was determined not to let history repeat itself.

"Oh they're competitive all right," she said. "They're friends with all the other crews, but when the race starts everything changes.

"They weren't happy when they didn't win last year ... they race to win."

Pre-race, Comanche was second favourite to take line honours, but tough conditions could make it difficult for the American outfit to take the handicap too.

Linda was perched at home watching the yacht tracker all day, but said she was not worried about the rough seas.

"All these guys are professionals, they know what they're doing," she said.

"He's had worse winds before and he's had masts fall down on him.

"NO, I'M not worried."

The boat has undergone big changes since last year's race and Smith has an increased workload due to a cut in crew to make the boat lighter.

"He grew up with sailing, his whole family sails and are sail-makers," Linda said.

"He came home just recently and his brother Yancy said to me, 'I didn't realise what an integral part he plays'. He's in charge of all the systems and everyone relies on him."

Local sailor Graeme Eaton was in third overnight on maxi Ragamuffin, and fellow Sunshine Coaster Stacey Jackson is a chance at handicap honours further back in the field on Black Jack.