Volvo Ocean Race organisers will introduce the first delayed start in the event's 39-year history on Sunday over fears that a wall of 10-metre waves and 50-knot winds could smash the six boats and effectively end the competition five months early.
The decision, which has been backed by five of the teams, will see the boats return to the Chinese holiday resort of Sanya after a four-hour race around the island, starting at 0600 GMT on Sunday, to decide positions for a staggered re-start 12-16 hours later.
By then, a dangerous weather system in the South China Sea should have moved on sufficiently for the fleet to resume in a pursuit race format and take on the 5,220 nautical miles (9,670 km) to Auckland in New Zealand.
Waves could be as high as three-storey buildings, according to forecasts being studied at the race's control room in Alicante, Spain, and organisers have decided that with no way to sail round the system it was better to wait.
"We have to trust the weather forecasts telling us how bad this is going to be," said Iker Martinez, skipper of Spanish leaders Telefonica. "It would be like heading out straight into a wall of waves."
Camper/ETNZ, currently second in the race due to finish in the Irish city of Galway in July, were sharply critical of the decision, saying they had worked out routing that would limit wave heights to four metres.
"The teams in favour of this are pushing their own agendas," said Chris Nicholson, skipper of the Spanish team crewed by Team New Zealand. "Our boat is designed to sail in these conditions."
The current edition of the Volvo Ocean Race has the smallest fleet since the event began in 1973 as the Whitbread Round the World Race.
Three boats were forced to retire from the first leg and only just made it to the start line for leg two in Cape Town.
Telefonica moved 18 points clear at the top of the standings by winning Saturday's in-port race in Sanya, with Camper finishing down in fourth.
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