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China’s Dongfeng Race Team retook the lead on the treacherous fifth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race on Thursday, just 48 hours after the boat nearly capsized in the middle of the Southern Ocean.

The 6,776-nautical mile (nm) stage from Auckland to Itajaí in south-east Brazil is reckoned to be the toughest of the entire nine-month marathon offshore event.

In the last race in 2011-12, two of the six-strong fleet failed to reach their destination and had to make pit-stops for repairs.

It was nearly a similar story, or worse, earlier this week when three boats briefly toppled on to their sides in 40 knots of wind (75 kilometres an hour) before returning to upright.

Miraculously, none of the crews involved – Team SCA (Sweden) and MAPFRE (Spain) were the others – picked up more than cuts and bruises and the boats only collected minor damage, which was later fixed by the teams.

Dongfeng’s turnaround was the most remarkable. After their upending, known in sailing as a ‘Chinese gybe’, they slipped back to last place in the fleet, but by midday on Thursday had recaptured the lead they first held leaving Auckland on March 18.

Dongfeng’s Onboard Reporter, Yann Riou (France), not surprisingly, says that morale was sky high – despite the challenges they are facing every hour.

“We have regular squalls interrupting us. It’s a constant switch between long periods of great surfing under blue skies and sunshine, and then intense periods of manoeuvres, often in the rain. Reef in, reef out, furl, unfurl,” he wrote in a blog from the boat.

“The atmosphere on board is excellent, but it will be even better once Cape Horn is behind us.”

The Chinese boat is ideally placed in both the leg and the race. They shared the overall lead before setting out for stage five with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, with both on eight points from four legs.

The Emirati boat, however, had a sliver-thin advantage courtesy of a superior in-port series record, which is the tie-breaker.

Caudrelier and his crew can hardly rest on their laurels in this leg. At 1240 GMT on Thursday, the first five boats were all within 11.5 miles of each other with Team Alvimedica (Turkey/U.S.), Team Brunel (Netherlands), Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and MAPFRE leading the chase.

The all-women’s crew of Team SCA were the fastest in the fleet over the early hours of Thursday, chopping huge chunks off an earlier deficit following Tuesday’s Chinese gybe.

They trailed the pack by some 73.3nm at 1240 GMT, but were gaining all the time in relatively strong winds.

The fleet still has the notorious Cape Horn, separating the Southern Ocean from the Atlantic, to negotiate, probably towards the end of the coming weekend, and then the run-in to Brazil next week.

They are currently expected to arrive around April 4.

In total, the fleet will have navigated 38,739nm by the time the race concludes in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 27, having visited 11 ports and every continent. – Agence France-Presse

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