Boats from Abu Dhabi and China â€“ two nations with no great tradition in offshore yacht racing â€“ have emerged as the early front-runners for the sportâ€™s premier prize, the Volvo Ocean Race.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing edged Chinese rivals Dongfeng Race Team by a mere 12 minutes after 25 days at sea on Wednesday in one of the closest finishes of the opening stage in the 41-year-old eventâ€™s history.
Although Abu Dhabi were among the pre-race favourites when the fleet set out on the nine-month, 38,739-nautical mile (nm) marathon around the world on October 11, few expected the Chinese boat to figure among the early front-runners.
However, the sport has been quietly growing in the worldâ€™s most populous nation and sailing gold medals in successive Olympics, in 2008 (Yin Jian) and 2012 (Xu Lijia), have helped boost its popularity.
Dongfeng launched a major recruitment campaign to find squad sailors capable of taking on the worldâ€™s leading offshore racers and found six after a series of personality and physical tests both on water and land.
Two rookies â€“ Jin Hao Chen and Jiru Yang â€“ were included in the crew for the 6,487nm opening leg between Alicante, Spain and Cape Town and both excelled.
They were happy to concede that they found the going tough as the boats battled through the Mediterranean and South Atlantic to South Africa.
â€œIt was always my dream to take part in the Volvo Ocean Race,â€ said Chen. â€œAt times, it felt like it was becoming my nightmare.â€
The crew was expertly led by a Frenchman, Charles Caudrelier, who was a member of the victorious Groupama crew from the previous edition in 2011-12.
He is skippering a high-profile team for the first time but his cool leadership and navigational skills ensured that his boat came very close to upsetting Abu Dhabi at the finish despite two major equipment breakages earlier in the leg.
The Emerati boat, skippered by Briton Ian Walker, was under no doubt of the danger that Caudrelierâ€™s crew posed during the next eight months of an event which visits 11 ports in all before concluding in Gothenburg, Sweden on June 27 next year.
â€œWeâ€™ve had them ride on our heels for the last 10 days or so. I must congratulate Dongfeng, an absolutely fantastic performance,â€ he said after the finish under Cape Townâ€™s famous Table Mountain.
â€œCharles is a fantastic sailor and heâ€™s doing great work. Weâ€™ll have our work cut out with them.â€
In all, seven teams, also from the Netherlands, Denmark, Turkey/USA, Spain, Sweden, are competing in the 12th edition of the race which was launched as the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973.