After 15 days and more than 4,000 nautical miles of sailing, the Volvo Ocean Race fleet on Monday seemed headed for one of the closest finishes so far in the 2014/15 edition, with the six boats waiting to break through a 40 nautical mile zone of light air and conclude the charge to the Leg 4 finish line in Auckland.
“When Ian ran the models for all six teams a little while ago, all of us are predicted to finish in Auckland within an hour and a half of each other,” wrote Matt Knighton, the on-board reporter for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam, referring to skipper Ian Walker.
“What’s more, the top three teams – Dongfeng, Mapfre and ourselves – are only 10 minutes apart.
“Five days out, these numbers are purely speculative, but one thing is for sure: this could be one of the closest and most unpredictable legs in this edition of the race.”
As dawn broke today in the western Pacific Ocean, the fleet was south of the Micronesian island nation of Vanuatu, a few degrees below the equator, north and slightly west of Auckland, the capital of New Zealand, struggling forward through very light air.
“Satellite photos show the total span of this transition zone to be about 40 miles wide, north to south,” wrote Amory Ross of Alvimedica.
“We felt it would take us 36 hours to break free entirely but, as we’re discovering, the models for these sorts of complex weather features are impossible to trust. Progress comes down to active cloud-dodging, luck and a whole lot of patience …
“We’re well aware the efforts over the next 12 hours can make or break our chances in the sprint to the finish.”
The leg began in the Chinese port of Sanya.
After several brutal days of high seas, Team Brunel, the Dutch boat, and SCA, the all-woman boat, broke away from the trailing half of the fleet and drove north towards Taiwan, eventually picking up strong winds which enabled them to power south-east. Brunel caught and passed the other four boats and led for a week until tacking to the east, setting up Azzam for a stretch in the lead.
But in the past few days, what once was a gap of 100nm from first to last condensed into a fleet running abreast on parallel southern tracks, fanned out west to east.
“Who’d have thought? Fifteen days after the start, the six boats are less than 10 nautical miles apart,” wrote Francisco Vignale, the on-board reporter on Mapfre, who were two miles behind leaders Dongfeng and a few hundred yards ahead of Azzam.
“This couldn’t be more exciting. We can feel the rivalry and there’s no time for distractions. The fact is that just one gust can get you out of the doldrums and can solve the race itself.
“The leg is on fire.”
Before sailing into light air, the fleet had been bounding south at up to 30 knots.
“Blasting downwind through the bright blue water of the South Pacific is exactly what you’d imagine it would be,” Knighton wrote.
“Really, really fun. The spray is as warm as the air and it is refreshing.”
A podium finish is the target of the leaders, Dongfeng and Azzam, who are one point behind the Chinese team in the overall standings.
Brunel is another three points back with about 1,000nm yet to sail.
“It’s turning into a fantastic race and, with light winds forecast for the end, it will surely be a nail-biter,” Azzam’s Walker wrote.
The fleet will sail 38,739nm over nine months, visiting 11 ports and every continent save Antarctica before the race concludes in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 27.
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