A grand strategic battle is unfolding in the Sydney to Hobart, with six boats close behind race leader Wild Oats XI.

The strategists aboard the Sydney to Hobart leaders are set to earn their keep, with potentially the closest race in years unfolding.

Late on Thursday, race leader Wild Oats XI had six boats on her tail as she chased a record-equalling seventh line honours win.

Normally by that stage only two or three boats at best would be within sight of the imperious boat.

Rival supermaxi Perpetual LOYAL was just behind, with new 80-foot boat Beau Geste, the Volvo 70s Black Jack and Giacomo, and the 100-foot giants Ragamuffin 100 and Wild Thing all within five nautical miles.

Black Jack and Giacomo were the early leaders on handicap.

The pre-race prediction of Perpetual LOYAL skipper and owner Anthony Bell that navigators would play an important part in the race appeared spot on.

After one of the most dramatic starts in the race’s 69-year history, the boating big guns were jockeying for position with skippers, tacticians and navigators faced with crucial decisions.

Wild Thing opted to stay closer to shore, while the other six boats in the leading pack were further out to sea.

“We’re pretty happy to be in touch with the front group,” Wild Thing navigator David Turton said.

“Our aim is to be in touch with them for as long as we can into that transition and what we see as being lighter air tomorrow morning.”

While the forecast arrival of north easterly winds on Friday will help push the boats along quicker, the leaders were well off the pace of Wild Oats’ 2012 record of one day 18 hours 23 minutes 12 seconds.

The battle was on in earnest after a dramatic first couple of hours in which Wild Oats XI and Perpetual LOYAL staged a thrilling duel, with the latter raising a protest flag shortly after rounding the first mark.

Race officials weren’t sure what the nature of the protest was, though it appeared that Wild Oats XI might have been executing a blocking move when the incident occurred.

While there were suggestions the two supermaxi titans might have had some contact, Bell opted not to push ahead with the protest after consulting his crew.

“At first we thought we had been fouled, but in a sense we had not,” Bell said.

The fleet of 94 was reduced by two early retirements.

Queensland 50-foot yacht Audi Sunshine Coast was forced out inside the first 30 minutes with rig damage.

The 52-foot Sydney-based Dodo had to pull out with mainsail damage and returned to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia.