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ALICANTE, Spain (Reuters) - Volvo Ocean Race's six-strong fleet, already battered by the Southern Ocean, sails in to the toughest part of the nine-month marathon offshore challenge over the next two days.
It is now heading for Cape Horn in southern Chile, a graveyard for countless sailors since it was first used as a trading route in the early 17th century.
The region is the only time in the 38,738-nautical mile race where the boats are likely to see icebergs and to complicate matters, a huge storm is building up behind them in the Southern Ocean.
Earlier on Saturday, the Chinese boat Dongfeng Race Team, skippered by Frenchman Charles Caudrelier, led the leg from Auckland to Itajaí, Brazil, but by less than 10nm from four other crews.
Caudrelier admitted that the stress was becoming "wearing" on his eight-man team.
"I think it's unique in the history of the Volvo Ocean Race (launched in 1973) to have a fleet battling like this in these latitudes," he told Reuters on Saturday.
"Tomorrow, we'll be even further south and the water temperature is going to drop. I'm expecting the hardest part of this race in the next 48 hours."
Dongfeng was one of three boats to narrowly avoid capsizing earlier in the week when they crashed over on their sides midway through the Southern Ocean on the 6,776nm leg -- a so-called 'Chinese gybe' or 'death roll'.
Miraculously, all the crews avoided anything more serious than cuts and bruises and damage to boats have been repaired on the move.
After some 3,000nm miles of sailing in the toughest leg of the race, Dongfeng lead by just 5.1nm from Dutch boat Team Brunel with overall leaders Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, MAPFRE (Spain) and Team Alvimedica (Turkey/U.S.) no more than 4nm further adrift.
The all women's crew of Team SCA (Sweden) were nearly 100nm behind that pack. They and MAPFRE also suffered Chinese gybes on Tuesday.
The leg is expected to conclude around April 5-6 after three weeks of sailing from New Zealand. In all, the boats will sail nine legs and visit 11 ports. They finish the race on June 27 in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly