Groupama sailing team led the fleet across the equator into the Southern Hemisphere on Friday but menacing thunder clouds and sudden squalls on the approach to the Doldrums could create opportunities for the chasing pack. At 1300 UTC Groupama had a lead of 70.2 nautical miles (nm), over second placed PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG, with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in third a further 40 nm off the lead.

Meanwhile, in the west, overall race leaders Team Telefónica were pushing Abu Dhabi hard, less than one nautical mile further off the lead.

Another 21 nm back CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand lay in fifth, 62 nm ahead of sixth placed Team Sanya.

Groupama crossed the equator at 0710 UTC with some trepidation having been caught out badly twice before in the Doldrums on previous legs.

On Leg 1 they lost touch with the leading pack when they were trapped for three days in the Atlantic Doldrums, and on Leg 2 suffered another Doldrums body blow in the Indian Ocean when they were dumped from first to fourth in windless conditions.

Today, helmsman Phil Harmer said the Groupama crew were hopeful of a smoother passage this time despite currently banging and crashing through squalls ranging up to 35 knots.

"It’s a different part of the world, it’s a different ocean and it looks more stable than it did in Leg 1 and Leg 2,’’ Harmer said.

"We just have to see in 30 hours time what happens and hope that everything is shining on us. Maybe we can get through and then the gate will close and the other guys can take some pain for a change.”

On Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, skipper Ian Walker has been keeping close watch on radar for squalls that could cost tens of miles if played wrong and jeopardise their push for a podium finish.

"We are getting tested regularly by huge clouds and rain squalls that try their best to push us off course,’’ Walker said. “Some squalls have been up to 38 knots and have resulted in us having to sail 60 degrees off course to weather them.

"It is a real test for the crew who need to rapidly reduce sail as fast as they can and hang on tight until the rain squall passes. It is then a race to get back to full sail as the wind drops away behind the cloud.”

Telefónica skipper Iker Martínez said there was potential for big gains and losses in the Doldrums and was ready to pounce on any chance to close their more than 100 nm gap to the leaders.

"The forecast is changing and the weather is unstable,’’ Martínez said. “We can have a chance at any moment. You have to be thinking positive. Opportunities can come out of the blue, even when we don’t expect.”

Race meteorologist Gonzalo Infante said the teams were unlikely to encounter the totally windless zones of previous Doldrums crossings, but the squall and storm activity could still pose problems over the next 24 hours.

Infante said the wind would ease to eight to 12 knots and shift to the east tomorrow, potentially favouring Groupama, PUMA and Abu Dhabi, while Telefónica, CAMPER and Sanya were likely to slow as their westerly positioning required them to sail tighter angles on the approach to the south east tip of the Solomon Islands.

The fleet has more than 2200 nm to go to the finish in Auckland and are currently expected to arrive on or around March 9.

SOURCE: Volvo Ocean Race & WOS Team