Team Sanya had worked out to a big lead on the Volvo Ocean Race fleet, but a broken rig has forced her to seek relief at a southern Madagascar port and given the rest of the yachts a chance to catch her.
Sanya is beset by troubles again in Volvo Ocean Race
The crew aboard Sanya Lan, the Chinese entry in the Volvo Ocean Race, were "totally gutted" after being forced to head for a port in southern Madagascar after suffering damage to the boat's rigging on Monday.
The team had built a large lead in the second leg of the race, from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi, when the crew noticed damage to one of the stays on the mast during a sail change. Sanya had taken the lead with a risky break to the north, away from the rest of the fleet and into a tropical storm.
"We were just out of the major breeze and changing sails … and were in wind speeds of around 12-14 knots when we noticed a vital piece of rigging loose from the mast," said Mike Sanderson, the skipper from New Zealand. "We had had an awesome night's racing and were totally hauling and making massive gains, so we were very upbeat with our progress. The weather was turning for the better and so we were happy in our decisions and general progress.
"As you can imagine we are totally gutted and can't quite believe this has happened when everything was going so well."
The crew were all safe and had the boat under control with the mast still upright. After arriving in the port the crew will assess the damage and make a repair plan.
A spokesman for a maritime intelligence service said the port where Team Sanya is headed is not considered to be at high risk from piracy.
The damaged rigging was first noticed by the crew member David Rolfe as he was preparing to make a sail change.
"That's experience," Sanderson said. "We had been due to tack an hour earlier in the darkness but had delayed that, given the conditions, and for sure if we had done that, the rig would have fallen over the side."
Sanya Lan's media crew member, Andres Soriano, said that the mood on board was glum.
"There is feeling of total disillusionment on board," he said. "Make no mistake, there isn't a single person on the boat at the moment that is not feeling pretty low. If you look around the yacht, there are many different expressions, but all in some way represent a sadness that is indescribable."
The five other boats in the race, which had trailed Team Sanya by more than 200 nautical miles, began quickly making up ground as the Chinese entry headed into port.
By late afternoon, Puma Ocean Racing, Camper/Emirates Team New Zealand and Team Telefonica were tightly bunched, with Groupama and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam trailing the fleet.
All those teams had taken a more southerly course than did Team Sanya. They turned north Monday, finally through the cold front that had slowed the fleet from almost the start of Leg 2 more than a week ago.
"We are a week in to Leg 2 and have only managed 1,700 miles," said Ian Walker, Azzam's captain. "This is disappointing by any standards, and attention has already been turned to fuel conservation. Christmas at sea is a given.
"The last few days have been tough on our team … Despite twice getting through into north-easterly winds, we have been repeatedly spat out and overrun by the front."
The mood aboard Puma was a bit more optimistic.
"It happened just like we thought it would, and just like we had set ourselves up for on the four previous days of trying," said Puma's media crew member Amory Ross. "This time though our vein of wind held just long enough.
"More important is the sense of relief onboard. Everyone seems at ease with the knowledge that the frustration of the last week is literally now behind us.
"The sun came out, plenty of blue sky and plenty of smiles, all around."
Hamish Hooper, the media crew member aboard Camper, called the breakthrough "momentous".
"The entire crew were ready like a coiled spring to seize the small window of opportunity and escape," he said.
"There was widespread relief once it was clear we were out, but immediate refocus on the rest of the leg ahead."
* With agencies