New American flyer Comanche was leading three of her fellow super maxis, but torrid conditions took a toll on the smaller boats on the opening night of the Sydney to Hobart race.
Strong southerly winds of up to 30 knots pummelled the fleet, which was reduced from 117 to 110, with seven boats retiring in the first seven-and-a-half hours.
At the front, Comanche, which impressively won the early dash to be first through Sydney Heads, was around two nautical miles ahead of seven-times line honours winner Wild Oats XI.
Two other supermaxis, Perpetual LOYAL and Ragamuffin 100, were a further three-and-a-half and six miles adrift, respectively.
The fifth supermaxi, RIO 100, struggled in the heavy conditions and was lagging in eighth, with Giacomo, Black Jack and Alive, filling fifth to seventh spots, respectively.
The leaders were well off race record pace.
Of the retired yachts, 1997 line honours winner Brindabella was the biggest boat and highest profile casualty.
The 21-year-old 80-footer pulled out with rudder bearings issues.
Barely two hours had elapsed before news of the first casualties emerged.
Sydney-based boats Bear Necessity (rudder damage) and Accessional Coarse Language Too (steering damage) and Victorian yacht Tina of Melbourne (hull damage) were among the first wave of stricken vessels to stop racing.
Triton (forestay damage), Wiilyama (torn mainsail), Brindabella and Last Tango (sail damage) were later additions to the mounting list.
While the southerlies were expected to lash the fleet throughout the night, significantly higher conditions were forecast to arrive at some stage of Saturday morning.
Among the early frontrunners on handicap were British 68-footer Titania of Cowes, NSW 40-footer Ariel and New Zealand Volvo 70 boat Giacomo.