It’s going to be a long, tough haul from Sanya to Auckland.

But the six boats of the Volvo Ocean Race weren’t reserving an ounce of effort on Sunday as they raced out of the Chinese port in champagne sailing conditions.

The 5,264-nautical mile trip to New Zealand is likely to have some of the most testing wind and sea conditions of the race so far and will take the fleet a good three-and-a-half weeks to complete it.

But as the boats careered off in great breeze, the two teams who are battling it out at the head of the standings were already going head to head.

In the quest for an advantage right at the start of Leg 4 of nine, Dongfeng Race Team, who were proudly displaying pennants as overall race leaders, Leg 3 and in-port race leaders on Saturday, seemed to impede Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in the opening lap of the circuit around Sanya bay.

Azzam skipper Ian Walker immediately cried foul but the official race management boat didn’t see it his way and the Chinese team were able to battle on unpenalised.

Charles Caudrelier’s crew, despite making four changes this week to their winning line-up, do not seem to be able to put a rudder wrong right now and sure enough, they took the honours as first boat out of the port.

Meantime, it was some baptism of fire for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s British newcomer Alex Higby who was awoken at around 7am on Sunday morning and told to prepare his full sail kit.

Higby, from Poole, Dorset, has been working with the team’s shore crew but he joined Walker’s race line-up with Adil Khalid forced to pull out of the trip to the City of Sails because of a nasty sickness bug.

“I know Adil is devastated to have to miss Leg 4 and I have wished him a speedy recovery,” said Higby.

“I haven’t had much time to think about the significance of getting the call-up from Ian but I’m of course very excited to get the chance to sail in my first Volvo Ocean Race leg.”

The switch didn’t seem to hinder Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s progress too much early on but they still had to cede early ground to five of their rivals with Dongfeng, Team Alvimedica, Team Brunel and

MAPFRE setting the early pace.

Team SCA were also going well and happy to hold off Abu Dhabi on a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon in the holiday resort on the southernmost point of China.

The early stages of the leg are likely to be some of the toughest in the entire race as the fleet speeds away in strong currents with the wind often blowing in the opposite direction in the South China Sea to cause pretty massive waves.

In 2012, Team Telefónica recorded some as high as 15 metres – the size of a medium sized office block.