An absorbing Leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race will come to a climax on Sunday when any one of four boats could claim victory in Brazil after three weeks and 6,776 nautical miles of heavy weather and high seas.
The stage has lived up to its reputation as the roughest and toughest of the nine-month, round-the-world marathon.
It has brought the retirement of Dongfeng Race Team following a mast breakage early on Monday, shortly before the crew was due to round Cape Horn, and at least three episodes when boats crashed to their sides in high winds in the Southern Ocean.
The tight racing at the head of the fleet has been even more surprising. By mid-day on Friday, the race was too close to call with 575nm to go. The lead changed three times overnight, with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (Ador) emerging in front after both Team Alvimedica and Mapfre had briefly taken over at the head of the fleet.
Team Brunel, not out of contention, either, are 17.3nm behind the leaders.
Behind them, Team SCA were doggedly ploughing through the south Atlantic, just over 700nm behind the leading pack.
Victory would put Ador’s Azzam in a strong position after joint leaders Dongfeng were forced to abandon the leg and continue under motor and sail to Itajai, Brazil, for a new mast fit.
The overall race is far from over and, in any case, Mapfre, winners of Leg 4, were in no mood to concede a metre to their Emirati rivals.
“We have spent a crazy night, I hope the last like it in this leg,” skipper Iker Martinez wrote in a blog post from his boat on Friday.
“The wind increased and veered so much that we ended up sailing at 20 knots against the waves, bouncing around.
“It seemed that everything was going to break. A porthole flew off the boat and the only safe place was the bunk, squeezed against the hull because otherwise, as the boat jumped, you could be thrown anywhere.
“We would have liked to get more miles out of the situation, but it has not been easy to steer.
“The bowmen could have been washed overboard any time, so we’ve been forced to put safety first. This is the third time it’s been like this since the leg started, yet we’ve not had these kind of conditions before that since we’d left Alicante.”
He now expects a sprint to the finish into south-east Brazil.
“The dice have rolled. Now it’s down to a high-speed race for the last few miles, while we wait for the wind to veer starboard again,” Martinez wrote.
The leading four are expected to finish on Sunday afternoon or evening, according to the latest estimates from race control.
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