The leading pack made a break from the Volvo Ocean Race fleet with just four nautical miles separating the top three boats in the sprint through the Malacca Strait on Sunday – the day a bat took up residence with one of the teams.
At one stage Team Telefónica, PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG and Groupama sailing team were just 300 metres apart as they duelled for the lead on day eight of the second stage of Leg 3 from the Maldives to Sanya in China.
At 1310 UTC, Telefónica were clinging to the narrowest of leads, one nm ahead of Groupama, match racing their rivals in a fickle breeze of around seven knots.
Meanwhile CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing were locked in their own fight close to the coast of Malaysia, a tactic which saw them lose ground on the leaders overnight as their deficit slipped to more than 50 miles. However as the sun started to set on the fleet the two chasers were mounting a comeback, taking full advantage of a fresh sea breeze to whittle down the lead to around 20 nm.
"We have a real big night ahead of us,” said CAMPER helmsman Rob Salthouse. “We will keep this breeze for another two or three hours before it shuts down and then pick up the land breeze tonight.
"The guys in front are now going slow and trying to get to the coast which we’re right on. We have opportunities to pull some more miles out of them tonight and then again tomorrow. There’s a lot of sailing to be done.”
Groupama navigator Jean-Luc Nélias said despite the near 20 nm buffer the front three currently enjoy, the race to emerge from the strait in front was far from over.
"This morning, PUMA and us came back with some wind on Telefónica, so now we are three boats neck and neck,” he said. “But the last report shows that CAMPER and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing are on a fast starboard tack and are coming back. We can imagine a compression of the fleet before the end of the strait.”
PUMA bowman Casey Smith said with such a small gap between the leading trio, the pressure to perform was even more intense.
"Things are very changeable here hour to hour so we’re just trying to stick with the front pack and not do anything silly that could put us behind,” Smith said.
"It’s a critical time. We’re just trying to race with what we’ve got right now, and stay neck and neck with Telefónica and Groupama. We hope we can have a good battle all the way to China.”
All six boats have had to dodge commercial ships, unlit fishing boats and plenty of debris floating in the waters of the strait.
"It’s not so bad now, but earlier today we went through a patch of shallow water and there were logs in the water 20ft long and a couple of feet wide,” Smith said. “If you hit one of those you’re going to knock a rudder off.”
CAMPER navigator Will Oxley added: “We have probably 40 or 50 echoes on the radar at any one time and a number of them are unlit fishing boats with nets joined between them. I wouldn’t call it safe.”
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s move to the coast of Malaysia may have seen them lose miles to the leaders but they did receive a visit from a bat, which hung from the mainsail of Azzam for around six hours.
"He joined us this morning, I think he got blown offshore,” skipper Ian Walker said after seeing Azzam turned into the bat-mobile.
"He basically attached himself to the mainsail and has survived a few tacks up there. He fell asleep on the reef point.
"I think he likes our black sails and Azzam’s falcon. We will try and deliver him back towards shore tonight.”
The fleet have another 200 nautical miles to sail to the next waypoint at Singapore before turning left into the South China Sea for the sprint into Sanya. Early predictions are for the first arrivals to be around February 5.
Team Sanya is struggling more than 110 miles behind the leaders.
Mike Sanderson’s team will receive full Leg 3 points when they finish at their homeport, as they were unable to take part in Stage 1 because of a rigging problem, while the other five teams will receive 80 per cent of the points for Leg 3.
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