Sanya (China) (AFP) - A Chinese sailing team led by a French captain took the third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race on Tuesday, crossing the finish line in home waters to make history as the event's first Chinese stage winners.
Charles Caudrelier and his Dongfeng Race Team arrived in Sanya on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, 23 days 13 hours 31 minutes and 38 seconds after setting out from Abu Dhabi.
The team are backed by Chinese carmaker Dongfeng, which has joint ventures with French manufacturers Renault and Peugeot and a stake in the latter.
Dongfeng were billed as underdogs at the start of the race -- like the only two previous Chinese entries in the race's 41-year history -- but the crew performed heroics to finish second in both the first two stages, from Alicante to Cape Town, and then onto Abu Dhabi.
They started the third leg as one of three joint leaders, but now hold an outright advantage in the 12th edition of the 38,739 nautical mile (nm) contest, with six legs to go before the finale in Gothenburg on June 27.
"We had to arrive first here, it was very important for me, for the project," said a jubilant Caudrelier, according to information released by organisers.
"We're so proud. One year ago we were here just discovering the Chinese rookies, they didn't know anything about this kind of boat, and now they've won a leg."
The Chinese team led for much of the 4,670nm stage through the Gulf, the Bay of Bengal, the Malacca and Singapore Straits and the South China Sea.
The six teams who competed faced challenges navigating through a shipping route heavily used by huge oil tankers and container vessels.
Fishing boats also provided obstacles for the crews, with the Dongfeng vessel being caught in two fishing nets on the first day of the race.
The weather also proved an issue, with the Dongfeng crew facing "big seas, strengthening winds and white water sweeping the deck" as they passed Sri Lanka, the team's website said.
But a week later, Dongfeng had extended its lead to more than 100nm.
The final weekend saw Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing briefly stage a challenge along the Vietnamese coast, but Caudrelier held his nerve to sail to victory with a lead of around 50nm.
The crew for the third leg included five French, two Chinese and one Australian-born sailor.
"I have made the best decision of my life to join this team," said 21-year-old Chinese crewmember Liu Xue following the victory.
"I have learnt so much. This leg, and this moment I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life," added the event's youngest sailor.
The nine-month Volvo Ocean Race is held once every three years, visiting 11 ports and every continent except Antarctica.
It was previously known as the Whitbread Round the World Race and is generally considered one of offshore sailing's most prestigious prizes and toughest challenges.
Leg four of the race from Sanya to Auckland, New Zealand, starts at 2pm (06.00 GMT) on February 8.