QINGDAO, China (AP) The skipper of Spain's Telefonica Blue was more relieved than triumphant after winning the fourth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race on Thursday, describing the stage from Singapore to China as the hardest sailing of his life. "I won't forget that in a hurry, but I'd like to," skipper Bouwe Bekking said after sailing into the Yellow Sea port of Qingdao.
"We won the leg and that is great we are right back in this yacht race but getting home in one piece was more important." Telefonica Blue finished ahead of Puma Ocean Racing, which overtook overall race leader Ericsson Four on the final night of the 2,500 nautical mile (4,630-kilometer, 2,877-mile) stage.
The result closed the gap at the top of the standings to just 3.5 points approaching the halfway mark of the round-the-world event, with Ericcson Four leading on 45 points, Telefonica Blue with 41.5, and Puma Ocean Racing third on 38 points. The fleet had to contend with dangerous, uncharted reefs at the beginning of the stage and then was struck by severe storms in the South China Sea, with winds reaching 55 knots (102 kph, 63 mph) and waves of 14 meters.
It was too much for several entries. Telefonica Black sustained a hole in its hull and retired, while Delta Lloyd and Ericsson Three also had to suspend racing with similar damage.
Bekking injured his back while stacking sails and was confined to his bunk for much of the leg. "(We) easily could have picked up more injuries in those conditions," navigator Simon Fisher said.
"It was pretty brutal out there." There will be an in-port race at Fushan Bay on Feb.
7 before the fleet sets off on Feb. 14 for the fifth leg across the Pacific Ocean from Qingdao to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
"I always said that if we reach Rio and are in contention, we have a great chance," Bekking said. "There are so many points available after that stage and anything could happen.
As it is, we are close to them and I know we will continue getting better." Puma Ocean Racing had a setback when it broke its boom in half during the stage, and was forced to shelter from a storm in a bay off the Philippines, but American skipper Ken Read was glad to finish second.
"We always knew this leg was going to be tough, but I don't think any of us ever dreamt of this," Read said. "There were times when I was sitting down below just looking to see where the next safe port would be, where we could stop if we needed to.
" The Volvo Ocean race started in Alicante, Spain and ends in June in St. Petersburg, Russia, after 10 legs and six in-port regattas.
___ On the Net: www.volvooceanrace.