ALICANTE, Spain (AP) Offshore sailors' biggest enemy - the lack of wind - stalled Volvo Ocean Race boats as they approached one of the most challenging parts of the nine-month event on Sunday.
The six-strong fleet has been crawling along at speeds of around five knots or less for much of the past week as it edged through the Bay of Bengal toward the Malacca Strait, leading into the South China Sea on the third leg of the nine-month, 38,739 nautical mile race.
The boats, Volvo Ocean 65s, are capable of top speeds of around 40 knots (about 46 mph, 74 kph), and the lack of wind pressure has been frustrating for all 58 sailors making their way from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, Hainan Island, on the southern-most tip of China.
They are now forecast to arrive three or four days behind schedule on Jan. 27 or 28, having left the United Arab Emirates on Jan. 3. They will enter the Malacca Strait late on Sunday or early on Monday.
Dongfeng Race Team, aiming to become the first team from China to win a leg in the 41-year-old event, led by 65.9 nautical miles from Spanish boat MAPFRE at 0940 GMT on Sunday. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing was third, just under 5 nautical miles further adrift. The leaders have just under 1,700 nautical miles to sail in this third stage of nine.
Dongfeng, Abu Dhabi and Team Brunel (Netherlands) led the overall standings on four points apiece after the first two legs of the round-the-world odyssey, which started in Alicante, Spain on Oct. 4 and is scheduled to finish in Gothenburg, Sweden on June 27.
The fleet is missing one of the starting boats, Team Vestas Wind (Denmark), which was forced to suspend racing midway through the second leg from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi, after running into a reef in the Indian Ocean on Nov. 29.
It was retrieved just before Christmas and is to be rebuilt by Persico boatyard in Bergamo, Italy, before a planned re-entry into the race's final two legs from early June.
The next four to five days of the race, in which the remaining fleet weaves through the notorious Malacca Strait, are likely to be some of the most hazardous of the race.
The 500 nautical mile long Strait is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and apart from huge tankers and stationery fishing vessels, the race boats will have to dodge man-made debris deposited in the waters separating the Indonesian island of Sumatra and Malaysia.
To add to the navigators' challenges, the wind conditions can be extremely fickle.
Will Oxley, the Australian navigator on board fifth-placed Team Alvimedica, the joint Turkish and American entry, explained. ''It's a tricky place to sail at the best of times and it pays to be prepared, even accepting there is always an element of randomness about success in the Strait,'' he told The Associated Press in a written message from his boat on Sunday.
''I did not have a good time in the Strait in the last Volvo Ocean Race (2011-12) on board Camper. At one stage, we had strong currents against us and we were forced to anchor, waiting for sea breeze. At the same time, the leaders sailed away further offshore.''