Sailing-UPDATE 1-Comanche takes early lead in Sydney to Hobart race

SYDNEY, Dec 26 (Reuters) - U.S. supermaxi Comanche took an impressive early lead in the 2015 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, speeding down Australia's east coast with favourite Wild Oats XI, seeking a ninth line honours victory, trailing in second place. Under blustery skies, Wild Oats XI briefly took the lead in the minutes after the starting siren at 1pm local time (0200 GMT), but the Ken Read-skippered Comanche quickly exploited northeasterly winds to lead out of Sydney Harbour, well ahead of the Australian yacht and other leading challengers. Comanche's start paralleled last year's race when it also took an early lead but were unable to hold off the Mark Richards-helmed Wild Oats. As the leaders headed down the New South Wales coast, Wild Oats was hanging on to second place, with Rambler in third. Forecasts are for a strong southerly winds later in the afternoon which may favour Comanche. More than 100 yachts lined up for the start of Australia's premier blue water yacht race, now in its 71st year, including the first entrants from China. Covering approximately 630 nautical miles of the Tasman Sea and notoriously treacherous Southern Ocean, the annual race is Australia's premier yachting event and among the world's most gruelling. Forecasts were for a southerly with thunderstorms and gusts over 30 knots, before conditions ease on Sunday. Several leading sporting figures are among the crews, including former Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke. Wild Oats' owner Robert Oatley put the yacht through a three-month refit this year with a 10-metre section cut off the bow and a new longer section fitted, along with modifications to the stern, hull and sails. But yachting experts say it faces a tough challenge from Comanche, regarded as one of the world's most technically advanced yachts. The leaders are expected to cross the finishing line in Hobart, the capital of Australia's island state of Tasmania, on Monday. (Reporting by Chris McCall; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)