01/21/2012 11:25 EST | Updated 03/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Piracy threat along Africa coast forces Volvo Ocean Race boats to flee to Maldives safe haven

MALE, Maldives - Boats competing in the Volvo Ocean Race had to be transported onboard a huge ship manned by armed guards to the safe haven of Maldivian capital Male because of the increased threat of pirates along the east coast of Africa.

The unprecedented move in the 38-year history of the race for some of the way of legs 2 and 3 in the Indian Ocean in late December came after marine security experts had advised organizers that their planned route was too risky due to a rise in piracy activity in the region.

Dutch ship Happy Diamond was also protected by barbed wire when it delivered the six-strong fleet safely to Male. The fleet stayed there about two days before being transported to the United Arab Emirates where racing continued in Abu Dhabi over the New Year. The boats returned again to Male early Saturday, also onboard Happy Diamond.

For more than four months the decision to use the Maldives was known only by the teams and race officials, who were all forced to sign non-disclosure documents.

"It has been a very tense and difficult time for us and obviously we did not want to have to take this measure," Race CEO Knut Frostad said. "But we had no option but to take our security experts' advice. Now we're just looking forward to getting back to racing."

The 2011-12 edition, which started in late October from Alicante, Spain, has already had its fair share of drama with the boats being forced to suspend racing four times because of broken rigging and a holed hull.

The third leg promises to be just as hazardous with the fleet racing more than 3,000 nautical miles across the Indian Ocean, through the Malacca Strait and into the South China Sea.

The fleet will have to tackle monsoon winds, long stretches of upwind sailing through rough seas and there will be container ships to dodge as they pick their way through some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Team Telefonica of Spain, led by joint world sailors of the year Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez, lead the overall standings on 71 points from Camper (Spain/New Zealand) on 64 and French boat Groupama on 51.