Sanya - France's Groupama and American team Puma were slugging it out for the lead well to the north of their rivals on Monday as the Volvo Ocean Race entered a crucial 24 hours in Leg four.
Seven days after leaving Sanya in China, bound for Auckland, New Zealand, the boats were finally within reach of the trade winds that should catapult them south to complete the 4 000 nautical miles remaining in just 10-12 days.
After stealing the lead from Camper/Team New Zealand on Sunday, Groupama held a commanding position in the Pacific Ocean as they started to turn south, finally pointing towards the finish line after days of sailing east.
But the American crew on Puma were hitting the highest speeds around 40 nm to their north, with everything depending on which of the two boats reaches the trade winds first.
"We're hoping to pinwheel around the inside boats further to the south, like Olympic runners arching through their first turn," said Puma's Amory Ross.
"Being on the outside means we'll sail a longer track, but we're positioned where the winds are supposed to be strongest, hopefully slingshotting us towards Auckland."
A win in leg four for Puma or Groupama could throw open the race, which is currently being dominated by Telefonica and Camper.
Telefonica won the first three offshore legs but are struggling in light winds south of the fleet. Camper, second overall, are slipping down the Leg four leaderboard by the day and may struggle to get back in contention.
"We found ourselves in a piece of water that we don't want to be in," said Camper skipper Chris Nicholson. "It is now about minimising damage so we can have more opportunities further down the track."
Telefonica have 101 points, followed by 83 for Camper, 73 for Groupama and 53 for Puma.
With 30 points on offer for the leg winner against just five for last place, victory for Groupama could get them back in the hunt, while a strong finish would revive Puma's hopes after they lost their mast on the first leg.
Leg four is due to finish in Auckland around March 8-10.
The Volvo Ocean Race started in Alicante, Spain, in October 2011 and ends in Galway, Ireland, in July.
Overall standings after three of nine offshore legs:
1. Telefonica (Spain) 101 points; 2. Camper/ETNZ (New Zealand) 83; 3. Groupama (France) 73; 4. Puma (US) 53; 5. Abu Dhabi (UAE) 43; 6. Sanya (China) 17