PUMA led the fleet on the rounding of the iconic Fastnet Rock at 1031 UTC on Monday, marking the final 150 nautical mile stretch to the finish at Galway, Ireland, where the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 race will be decided.
The final offshore leg has seen some of the closest racing yet, with the top four teams on the overall leaderboard Groupama, PUMA, CAMPER and Telefónica each switching the role of leader since the race started from Lorient, France, on Sunday.
Just six minutes separated the top four around Fastnet Rock and at 1400 UTC with 113 nautical miles remaining it was PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG who held the narrowest of advantages over Team Telefónica, CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand, Groupama sailing team, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Sanya.
"The motivation is still there,"
said PUMA bowman Casey Smith. "We're racing hard, we've got all the boats around us, and we're not going to let them get past."
Fourth place would be enough to give Groupama overall victory from their first appearance in the race, though with conditions still far from easy nothing is certain for Franck Cammas' team.
"No one is giving an inch,''
CAMPER navigator Will Oxley said after a cold, rough and uncomfortable night's sailing in the English Channel, which has pushed each crew to the limit as they fight to pour every ounce of their flagging energy into the final day's racing and keep their winning ambitions alive.
"This leg and this Volvo race is going to come down to the wire."
Abu Dhabi still have ambitions of winning the in-port series although their hopes of overall victory were ended by damage to their boat some time ago -- and they were struggling for speed again on Monday with suspected keel damage.
"We normally struggle a bit, but now we're struggling a lot,''
skipper Ian Walker said. "I suspect we've got some damage to our keel, but there's no way to find out till Galway."
Sanya are eager to gain a place on the podium before the race is out and at 1400 UTC they remained in touch with the leaders, just behind Abu Dhabi.
Though the miles are decreasing the level of difficulty is not. After rounding Fastnet Rock, the most southerly tip of Ireland, the fleet sailed head first into westerly winds gusting in excess of 25 knots.
Proving key on the remaining course is the gybe that the teams will have to measure-up near the entry to Galway and a potential light wind approach, Volvo meteorologist Gonzalo Infante said. "The leg could be won or lost on the back of how the teams play a critical gybe later today," he said. "This gybe will set their layline to the waypoint at Inishmore Island off the coast of Galway, and if they get it wrong it could cost time and distance.
"There could also be opportunities for gains and losses in the final 30 nautical miles from Inishmore to the finish because a warm front passing over the area is causing unpredictable rain and light winds, likely less than 10 knots."
The latest ETA for the arrival of the first team in Galway is between 03:00 and 05:00 UTC.
Follow all the action from the final leg of the Volvo Ocean Race at www.volvooceanrace.com including rolling updates, regular live calls to the boats and a live race tracker.