A May Day call alerted rescue services that the mast of the 92-ft catamaran Royal & Sun Alliance had crashed on to the twin decks, bringing to a dramatic end the first all-women attempt to sail round the world non-stop.
The incident happened during the night as the yacht was being driven in winds gusting between 30-50 knots midway between New Zealand and Cape Horn, and 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile.
"A huge wave came up from behind, lifting the stern and burying both bows in the wave ahead, bringing the boat to a shuddering halt," the skipper, Tracy Edwards, said. "About five minutes later creaking could be heard from the mast and the whole thing just crumpled and broke up as it hit the hull."
The crashing mast set off a distress signal which was picked up by Falmouth coastguards. However, no one was injured and the crew hastily cut away the mast as it threatened to punch a hole in a hull. The boat will now head for Chile under jury rig.
"We are disappointed beyond belief as we were getting so close to Cape Horn," said Edwards, who was chasing the non-stop record of 71 days 14 hours.
The decision by Lawrie Smith to hug the coast was paying dividends last night as the British boat, Silk Cut, led the Whitbread Round the World fleet past Recife on the north-east corner of Brazil on day five of the sixth leg to Fort Lauderdale.
WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE (sixth leg, 4,750 miles, Sao Sebastiao, Bra, to Fort Lauderdale, US): 1 Silk Cut (GB) L Smith 3,547.4 miles to finish; 2 Innovation Kvaerner (Nor) K Frostad 2.3 miles behind leader; 3 EF Language (Swe) P Cayard +17.9; 4 Chessie Racing (US) J Kostecki +20.4; 5 Toshiba (US) P Standbridge +23; 6 Brunel Sunergy (Neth) R Heiner +28.2; 7 Merit Cup (Monaco) G Dalton+29.5; 8 EF Education (Swe) C Guillou +31.2; 9 Swedish Match (Swe) G Krantz +53.