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4114Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (ADOR) – the emirate’s entry in the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 (VOR) – is in a close battle for a podium place at the midway point of the race’s third leg from the team’s homeport to Sanya in China.

So far, Leg 3 has seen the closest competition in this edition of the round-the-world sailing challenge, with ADOR leading the fleet away from the United Arab Emirates’ capital on January 3 before becoming embroiled in a familiar three-way battle for first place with the other top teams, China’s Dongfeng Race Team and the Netherlands crew on Team Brunel.

ADOR, aboard its yacht Azzam, briefly gave up the lead as the leading trio approached the northern tip of the Musandam Peninsula but soon snatched back control by splitting paths with the other two.

“Dongfeng Race Team and Team Brunel sailed through the Ras al Bab gap while we chose to take the longer route round the outside of the islands - as we had done to good effect on the approach to Abu Dhabi,” explained ADOR skipper Ian Walker at the time. “Once again this move paid off as we held more wind and eked a one-mile lead as the fleet compressed into lighter winds to the east.”

ADOR dropped to fifth when the wind dropped to little more than a zephyr in the Gulf of Oman allowing Dongfeng Race Team to develop a seven-mile advantage at the front of the fleet. Walker’s crew was back in contention for the Leg 3 lead on Day 3 after breaking from the fleet in search of more favourable winds. The move – which saw Azzam skirt the Volvo Ocean Race-imposed exclusion zone close to Iranian waters – paid dividends when the wind shifted in ADOR’s favour, leapfrogging Azzam into third place.

ADOR were called up on the marine radio by an inquisitive Pakistani navy patrol who questioned Walker over the team’s intentions. Happily for all concerned, the encounter was a friendly one and didn’t delay the ADOR crew’s progress. “It was a five minute conversation,” said Matt Knighton, ADOR’s on board reporter. “They wanted to know what we were doing, who we were, what nationalities we had onboard. They didn’t slow us down and we were soon on our way.”

Lighter than expected breezes close to shore for ADOR cost valuable miles and once again the sailors had to fight their way back into contention. The Azzam sailors were given little chance to sleep as shifty winds forced an almost non-stop cycle of sail changes. Their efforts paid off however and by January 8 Azzam was back up to third place again.

After a week of predominantly sunny and dry light wind sailing, boat speeds increased dramatically on Day 9 as the fleet were hit by stronger winds funneling between the southernmost tip of India and the island of Sri Lanka. The ADOR sailors revelled in the stronger conditions, clawing their way past Team Brunel and into second place. The gain was short lived however, as that night they fell foul of the light winds in the wind shadow cast by Sri Lanka’s high mountains. The fleet quickly compressed and by first light just a few miles separated ADOR, Brunel, Spanish team MAPFRE, and Turkish entry Team Alvimedica, as all four battled for second place.

“What a frustrating night,” wrote ADOR skipper Ian Walker in an email from Azzam the following morning. “We sailed really well yesterday – we had good speed and made good sail choices. We ground Brunel down and then got ahead of them – only to get stuck under Sri Lanka! We were 125 miles south of the island but needed to be 10 more. We had got close enough to leaders on Dongfeng to see them at one point, but they just wriggled through to the north of us.”

The second half of Leg 3 looks set to be as challenging as the first with light winds expected to dog the fleet in the next few days as they head for the entrance to the Straits of Malacca. Although Walker admits he would always rather be leading, he predicts the final result is far from certain at this stage.

“The good news is we have three boats to race against now,” Walker said. “But the stakes have gone up. We are closer to Brunel than we have been for the last week and the wind ahead looks dire. It likely the fleet could compress again soon so it is all very much still to play for on this leg.”

ADOR is expected to complete the 4,642-nautical mile leg from Abu Dhabi to Sanya on or around January 24.

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