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SANYA, China (AP) — China's Team Dongfeng led the fleet out of its home port of Sanya on Sunday for leg four of the Volvo Ocean Race, a 5,264-nautical mile trip to Auckland that promises particularly treacherous conditions in the first two days.
Once the six-strong fleet has emerged from the protection of Sanya Bay, it is likely to be hit by strong winds of up to 30 knots and a strong current running in the opposite direction.
That is likely to result in waves that in the last edition in 2011-12 measured up to 15 metres in height.
Very little, however, appears to be bothering Dongfeng and their French skipper Charles Caudrelier.
The boat made history in the 41-year-old race, formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race, last month when it became the first from China to win a leg.
It edged out Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in the third stage from Abu Dhabi to Sanya and took the overall race lead from the Emirati boat by just one point.
The crew then followed up on Saturday (Feb. 7) by winning the Sanya in-port race, again a first for China in an event that is being staged for the 12th time.
The fleet raced around the relatively protected Sanya Bay before setting out for the open seas in winds of up to 15 knots on Sunday.
It is likely to be a baptism of fire for Abu Dhabi's trimmer, Alex Higby, a 29-year-old Briton who until Sunday had been working as a hand in the sail loft of the team's shore crew.
He was awakened at 7am local time by Abu Dhabi's skipper Ian Walker and was told to get his sailing kit out of storage. The team's first choice in his role, Adil Khalid, had been struck down by a vomiting bug and pulled out of the stage to New Zealand.
Higby was determined to make the most of his unexpected opportunity.
"I know Adil is devastated to have to miss the fourth leg and I have wished him a speedy recovery," he said. "I haven't had much time to think about the significance of getting the call-up from Ian, but I'm of course very excited to get the chance to sail in my first Volvo Ocean Race leg."
The fleet is expected to arrive in Auckland in about three-and-a-half weeks. In all, it will sail 38,739 nautical miles over the nine months of the race before the conclusion in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 27.