Spanish crew MAPFRE broke the Leg 3 deadlock on Wednesday after 10 days at sea, snatching the lead from Dongfeng Race Team with just 1,500 nautical miles left to Melbourne.
Xabi Fernández's team overhauled long-time leg leaders Dongfeng shortly before 2200 UTC on Tuesday after navigator Juan Vila made the call to hug the Antarctic Ice Exclusion Zone (AIEZ).
Charles Caudrelier's Dongfeng briefly regained the top spot when their choice of line around 35 miles to the north of the AIEZ put them closer to the finish, but a better angle on the west-south-westerly breeze resulted in quicker speeds for the Spaniards.
MAPFRE moved in front once more just after 0100 UTC and have since pulled out a 10-mile advantage over Dongfeng.
Although the leg is far from over, it is a significant moment for the two duelling teams, both of whom were tipped as pre-race favourites and who finished first and second respectively in Leg 2 from Lisbon to Cape Town.
“It's good to be in the lead for sure but we know they are going to push us a lot,” Fernández said. “The next few gybes are going to be opportunities for them, like the last one was for us. We know they are fast and we have to be very careful.”
Dongfeng's Stu Bannatyne said the team were prepared to battle for the top spot all the way to the finish line – but conceded there is no room for error.
“To get over the line first in this one we're going to have to be sailing as close to 100 per cent as possible,” he said. “Saying that, we've been racing for 10 days now, everyone's fatigued, and it's really hard to stay at 100 per cent.”
Despite losing a few miles to third-placed Vestas 11th Hour Racing, there was some good news for Bouwe Bekking's fourth-placed Team Brunel.
Key team member Annie Lush rose from her bunk for the first time since injuring her back at the weekend when a huge wave swept her and helmsman Peter Burling into the rear guard wires.
“I'm finally out of my bunk after 72 hours,” Lush said. “I can move around, and it feels amazing.”
After picking individual routes through the Southern Ocean over the past few days, all seven boats were today practically lined up close along the 45th parallel south with more than 450 miles splitting MAPFRE in first place from team AkzoNobel in seventh.
If all goes to plan the leaders could get to enjoy Christmas on dry land - early predictions put them arriving into Melbourne on Christmas Day local time.
The forecast is not so good for those in the second half of the fleet – Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, Turn the Tide on Plastic and team Akzonobel – who were still desperately trying to stay ahead of an easterly-moving high pressure system that could thwart any hopes of arriving for Christmas.
At 1300 UTC speeds onboard the back three had dropped to between 10 and 14 knots and the wind was as low as seven knots – an ominous sign.
“We have a high pressure chasing us down and a barrier we must stay north of,” said Dee Caffari, skipper on sixth-placed Turn the Tide on Plastic. “All the pressure is to the south where we are not allowed to go. As a result we risk being swallowed up and arriving much later to Melbourne than those ahead who will squeeze through. Damn it!”
The biggest impact will be on AkzoNobel, who could find themselves crossing the finish line as much as three days after the frontrunners.
An arrival that late will heap unwanted pressure on Simeon Tienpont's men to turn the boat round in time for the start of Leg 4 to Hong Kong on January 2.
“Melbourne is a pitstop (in terms of working on the boat) so the rules say we can't replace spares or have more than two shore crew working on the boat,” AkzoNobel boat captain Nicolai Sehested said. “We have a diverse team with lots of skills though and I'm sure we can have the boat race ready pretty quickly once we get to Melbourne.”
Leg 3 – Position Report – Wednesday 20 December (Day 11) – 13:00 UTC
1. MAPFRE -- distance to finish – 1,679.2 nautical miles
2. Donfeng Race Team +10.9 nautical miles
3. Vestas 11th Hour Racing +108.6
4. Team Brunel +139.0
5. Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag +304.4
6. Turn the Tide on Plastic +400.2
7. team AkzoNobel +469.1