Charles Caudrelier's Franco-Chinese crew Dongfeng Race Team continued to lead the way east, managing to stay just ahead of a huge depression catapulting the fleet towards Australia.
However they have been under constant attack from Leg 2 winners MAPFRE, just 18 nautical miles directly to the west.
Along with Vestas 11th Hour Racing and Team Brunel, the frontrunners have opted for a southerly route that has taken them just 120 miles north of the Crozet Islands, a remote sub-antarctic archipelago that's home to a French research station manned by 30 scientists.
By staying south the four teams are benefitting from sailing a shorter distance to the Leg 3 finish but the trade-off is facing more challenging weather conditions closer to the eye of the storm.
The most direct route to Melbourne would see them dive well into the Furious Fifties but their path has been blocked by the Antarctic Ice Exclusion Zone set by race control to keep the fleet out of iceberg-infested waters.
Instead, to avoid entering the AIEZ while remaining in the strongest wind, the frontrunners have been forced to perform numerous gybes as they zig-zag just north of the line – a hard task at the best of times, but especially when also dealing with winds gusting up to 60 knots and huge waves.
Team Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking recounted one such gybe in a dispatch from the boat.
“We did a gybe in 45 knots,” he wrote. “Luckily we had a huge surf and the main came through nicely. You are always worried about the battens and the mainsail track in these conditions. Max wind puff was 62 knots, good we had the gennaker furled just before that. Now we are literally riding the storm out.”
On Thursday team AkzoNobel paid the price for a less than perfect gybe when the force of the manoeuvre ripped a section of track from the mast, damaging their mainsail in the process.
Forced to use only headsails, the team has headed north to find the warmer weather need to allow for their repairs with epoxy resin to cure. While the crew have rallied round to fix the damage, they have been relegated to seventh place.
“The boat itself is all good, everyone's been working pretty hard for one and a half days now to get stuff fixed,” said AkzoNobel skipper Simeon Tienpont. “We headed north and it's 10 degrees warmer, which has given us an opportunity to get the track back on the mast and start to repair the mainsail.
“It's far from an ideal situation – we said before the start of the leg that we needed to get to Melbourne in one piece. Everyone's pretty stressed because we want to make it in time for the next leg. Unfortunately we had a bad gybe but we're dealing with it in full fighting mode and there's not much else you can do.”
Two hundred miles behind the leaders Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag and Turn the Tide on Plastic were resuming their epic battle from Leg 2. Scallywag had a 10-mile jump on the Turn the Tide crew at 1300 UTC although the latter were almost a knot faster at 23.4 knots of boat speed.
Leg 3 – Position Report – Friday 15 December (Day 6) – 13:00 UTC
1. Donfeng Race Team — distance to finish – 3,869.6 nautical miles
2. MAPFRE +20.3 nautical miles
3. Vestas 11th Hour Racing +89.2
4. Team Brunel +157.7
5. Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag +176.4
6. Turn the Tide on Plastic +186.5
7. team AkzoNobel +260.3