Lisbon - France's Groupama launched an 11th hour comeback in Leg 7 in the Volvo Ocean Race on Tuesday as rivals Camper avoided severe damage by swerving a whale in the North Atlantic.
Groupama shot from fifth to third in less than 24 hours and by 13:00 UTC were within 50 miles of leg frontrunners Abu Dhabi, who have seen their long-term lead eroded as the six-boat fleet drag raced east towards Lisbon, Portugal.
With less than 850 miles left to sail, Groupama were pinning their hopes of a last-minute victory on a band of light winds blocking the path to the Lisbon finish line.
"For the moment we are pushing hard, we keep changing sails to sail at the maximum speed," said Groupama's navigator Jean-Luc Nelias.
"We're lucky because the sea state is good. The boats are sailing well. We have 24 hours left in these conditions before we enter the high pressure ridge off the Portuguese coast. Once in the ridge it will be a different game."
A win for Groupama could see them steal the overall lead from Spain's Telefonica with just two stages of the round the world left.
Meanwhile, Camper had Spanish sailor Roberto Bermudez to thank for keeping their hopes of a podium position alive when his lightning-quick reactions stopped them from hitting a whale.
Bermudez was steering the boat at high speed when he spotted the whale and swerved. A collision with the whale could have caused race-ending damage to the boat.
"With reflexes like a cat he narrowly missed what could have been the equivalent of a runaway freight train colliding with a truck," Camper crewman Hamish Hooper said.
"It would have been seriously bad for both the whale and us."
The Leg 7 winners are expected to cross the finish line at 18:00 UTC on Thursday.