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ITAJAI, Brazil (Reuters) - Briton Ian Walker took a big step towards a lifetime ambition to claim offshore sailing’s most prestigious prize, the Volvo Ocean Race, when his Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew claimed the fifth leg on Sunday.
There are still four legs left, including a trans-Atlantic crossing from Newport, Rhode Island, to Lisbon, but the 6,776-nautical mile (nm) stage win from Auckland to Itajai, Brazil, leaves Walker’s men strong favorites for the overall prize.
They now stand seven points clear of their nearest rivals after Dongfeng Race Team (China) failed to complete the leg with a broken mast.
An elated but exhausted Walker was not taking anything for granted after sailing into a packed Itajaí harbor after the 19-day crossing through the South Pacific, Southern Ocean and South Atlantic.
Instead he simply savored a hard-earned win with only 32 minutes to spare from the chasing pack.
"Awesome. It’s been such a monster of a leg, we are so, so stoked,” said the 45-year-old. “We have sailed very, very well, but it was a very tight finish.”
The leg was incredibly closely contested with MAPFRE (Spain), Team Alvimedica (Turkey/U.S.) and Team Brunel (Netherlands), contesting the lead with Abu Dhabi all along the Brazilian coast and eventually finishing in that order.
Walker, a twice Olympic silver medalist in the 1996 and 2000 Games, is competing in the race for the third time and has stated that victory in the 41-year-old event would fulfill a childhood dream.
The fifth leg is generally regarded as the toughest of the nine-month race. Three boats -- Dongfeng, MAPFRE and the all-women’s crew of Team SCA (Sweden) -- all crashed on their sides in so-called ‘Chinese gybes’ before righting.
Several of the boats also suffered damage to their sails along the way and on Monday Dongfeng’s hopes were scuppered when the top of their mast fractured leading to their withdrawal.
The boats will set off for the next stage to Newport on April 19.
In all, the fleet will cover 38,739nm before the culmination of the nine-month race in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 27.
Editing by Ken Ferris