The 108-metre tall Guan Yin Statue provided the turning point in the in-port race.
The 108-metre tall Guan Yin Statue provided the turning point in the in-port race.

Winds of change for 'unlucky' Puma as they see first place sail away

SANYA, CHINA // If the 5,220 nautical miles to New Zealand resemble the 43.2 nautical miles to the Guan Yin statue and back yesterday, Leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race might prove exhausting ... for those trying to follow it.

In the peculiar first stage yesterday, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing manoeuvred from last place to come in third. The French boat Groupama raced from last to second. Team Sanya, last in every competition it entered since the first in-port race in Spain on October 29, snared a fourth. Camper With Emirates Team New Zealand sailed well in second then hit a technical snag and faded to fifth.

And most graphic of all, the American entry Puma spent much of the afternoon in an impressive lead that exceeded a mile, then made the turn around the famous Buddha statue in the South China Sea, hit a windless zone and seethed as every rival went on by.

"I feel sorry for Puma because they sailed a great race and just got unlucky," said Iker Martinez, the skipper of Telefonica, which came back first in the odd stage. Given Telefonica's growing overall lead, 18 points over second-place Camper heading into Leg 4, that outcome became the only bit of form.

The leg is unprecedented in the race's 39-year history. Never before have the organisers decided to bring back the boats after a short race and hold them for 12 to 16 hours.

This is out of deference to a foreboding storm forecast for the South China Sea, smack amid the path from this Chinese island of Hainan to New Zealand. Race officials feared the demolition of boats in a race with only six of them, so they delayed the real start until this morning so that conditions could ease somewhat.

Even as workers dismantle the race village here, the 66 crew members of the six entries were scheduled to appear at 7am local time (3am UAE) and leave in a staggered start. Telefonica will depart for Auckland first, with Groupama exiting two minutes, 34 seconds later, reflecting its deficit of yesterday. Abu Dhabi will depart one minute after Groupama, with Sanya four minutes after Abu Dhabi and Camper almost two minutes after Sanya.

Thirty long minutes after that, Puma at last will shove off. Puma's 39 minute, 17 second deficit by the end of yesterday owed to the gaping lead it had amassed. That enabled all five other boats to witness its stagnation and swerve elsewhere.

Wrote Puma media crew member Amory Ross: "The boats behind had the advantage of seeing our problems and opted for the inshore option. We can't get to them, they're all powered up in completely different conditions, and we're watching them sail right by."

There they sat, within view of the world's fourth-tallest statue, as their rivals all sailed "literally 100 feet away," Ken Read, the Puma skipper, said. He also said: "I don't mean to seem angry, but I'm angry," and, "You want to take a winch handle and throw it through the deck. That's the reaction."

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