Dongfeng Race Team (Charles Caudrelier/FRA) have dominated the Volvo Ocean Race ever since they entered their home waters in Sanya last month, and Sunday marked no change despite four swaps in their crew line-up for Leg 4 to Auckland.
They won the stage from Abu Dhabi and then followed up on Saturday with a faultless win in the Team Vestas Wind In-Port Race here.
Caudrelier’s men raced clear of the six-strong fleet virtually from the starter’s gun on Sunday and exited the bay of Sanya first, cheered on by the usual enthusiastic crowds here on leg departure day.
However, there was still a long, long way to go on a treacherous stage to New Zealand’s ‘City of Sails’, and they soon lost their slim early advantage to Team Brunel (Bouwe Bekking/NED).
The fourth stage to Auckland, a distance of some 5,264 nautical miles (nm), is probably the toughest so far in terms of the sea conditions the fleet will meet, especially in in the South China Sea, when they head towards the Philippines.
Dongfeng have rested four of the sailors who saw them victorious in their home port in the previous leg from Abu Dhabi to Sanya. Martin Strömberg (SWE), Erwan Israel (FRA) and Chinese pair Yang Jiru (English name ‘Wolf’) and Chen Jin Hao (‘Horace’) step in.
Caudrelier’s toughest call was to go ahead with the pre-race plan of resting Pascal Bidégorry (FRA), his long-time mentor, with Israel taking his role of navigator for Leg 4.
Israel certainly doesn’t lack experience in the race after winning the previous edition as part of the Groupama crew.
That is more than can be said of Alex Higby (GBR), who was awakened at 0700 local time on Sunday, to be told to stand by for his first taste of Volvo Ocean Race duty on board Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (Ian Walker/GBR).
He is stepping in for Azzam’s Emirati sailor, Adil Khalid, who has been forced to pull out at the 11th hour because of a vomiting bug.
“I know Adil is devastated to have to miss Leg 4 and I have wished him a speedy recovery,” said Higby, who has been a member of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s shore crew in the sail loft.
“I haven’t had much time to think about the significance of getting the call-up from Ian, but I’m of course very excited to get the chance to sail in my first Volvo Ocean Race leg,” he added.
The pressure will be on the newcomer from Poole, Dorset in England. His team trail Dongfeng Race Team by just one point after three of the nine legs of the nine-month, 38,739nm marathon.
But it’s by no means a two-team race. So far, there have been three separate winners of the first three legs and Leg 2 winners, Team Brunel (Bouwe Bekking/NED), are still in contention despite a disappointing fifth place Leg 3 finish.
Team Alvimedica (Charlie Enright/USA), the youngest crew in the race, are feeling bullish after claiming their first podium finish with third spot on Leg 3, but MAPFRE (Xabi Fernández/ESP) and Team SCA (Sam Davies/GBR) both have points to prove after failing so far to reach their potential on the offshore stages.
The boats are forecast to arrive in Auckland in roughly three-and-a-half weeks at the beginning of March.
*Image credits: Volvo Ocean Race/Marc Bow/Ainhoa Sanchez/Victor Fraile