Wellington - Storms claimed their first victim of leg five of the Volvo Ocean Race with the Abu Dhabi crew forced to return to harbour after their boat was damaged smashing into a steep wave.
The six skippers had steeled themselves for a 36-hour battering on Sunday as they left Auckland at the mid-point of a race that remains too close to call.
But it was a disastrous day for Abu Dhabi, with skipper Ian Walker forced to suspend racing around six hours of leaving port after the bulkhead serving a major sail broke free.
The team, currently fifth in professional sailing's toughest test, expect to spend a day fixing the problem.
"Absolutely gutted," said crew member Nick Dana. "After going off a steep wave, we have torn the J4 bulkhead clean out. We are now headed for Auckland and hopefully a quick turnaround. The team is devastated."
By the halfway stage of the 39-year-old contest the winner is often well ahead of the rest of the fleet, but at the start of Leg 5 to Itajai in Brazil Spanish leaders Team Telefonica boast a slender 15-point advantage.
That can quickly be wiped out, as each leg earns the winners 30 points.
"I have been following this race closely since 1981 and I don't think we've had one edition... where we still simply don't know how it's going to be settled by this stage," said team Sanya skipper Mike Sanderson, 2005-06 winner.
Sanderson proved his point Sunday by guiding Sanya, last in the standings, out of Auckland harbour first after an hour's superb navigation around an in-port course. They led marginally from Abu Dhabi, Puma and Telefonica.
He will not have long to rest on his laurels as the fleet heads 6,705 nautical miles towards their eventual destination to Itajai in Brazil via the Southern Ocean and then Cape Horn on the tip of South America.
Race HQ in Spain on Sunday delivered a weather warning to the fleet with a huge storm expected to hit it within a day. Waves of up to eight metres -- potentially boat-breaking conditions -- are expected.
Aucklander Sanderson will not be alone in worrying about his boat which has already been forced to suspend racing to effect bow and rigging repairs.
Abu Dhabi was earlier forced to fix a crack in their rigging Friday while Groupama, Leg 4 winners, spent much of the week repairing a large hole in their bow which could have sunk them 100 miles from Auckland.
Neal McDonald, a sailor on overall leaders Team Telefonica competing in his sixth race, said the trip to South America still had the potential to frighten even the most experienced campaigner.
"The Southern Ocean is a long way from home, a long way from land and a long way from any help," said the 48-year-old.
"If anything happens to you, your best bet for assistance is another competitor -- nobody else is there, that's for sure."
Overall standings: 1. Team Telefonica (Spain) 122 pts, 2. Groupama (France) 107, 3. Camper (Spain/New Zealand) 104, 4. Puma (U.S.) 83, 5. Abu Dhabi 55, 6. Team Sanya (China) 25