It was nip and tuck for all eight yachts last night as, deep into the Bay of Plenty, there was a paucity of wind for the Volvo Ocean Race fleet, 24 hours after the start of their 6,700-mile fourth leg from Auckland to Rio de Janeiro.
After some shuffling of the pack up front, Kevin Shoebridge's Tyco held a slender and vulnerable two-mile advantage over four boats sharing second place, two more in sixth and the all-woman crew of Amer Sports Too holding steady at 11 miles behind the leader.
Before departure, Magnus Olsson, normally the man with the broadest smile on any dockside, was uncharacteristically intense, taking every member of the Assa Abloy crew to one side to give them the same message: "We are going to fight and give everything. If we don't do it now, we will never do it."
Stern words for a stern test, as the man who was so instrumental in Paul Cayard's win of 1997-98 added: "It makes a big difference if you finish this leg on the podium or not. If you do, you keep going up [the boat won the third leg from Sydney to Auckland to put it in the leading four]. If you have a bad leg it is almost impossible to turn it around after that. This is a make-or-break leg for all of us."
Acutely aware of this is the overall leader, the American Olympic silver medallist John Kostecki, with an unchanged crew aboard the German entry, illbruck. He had his syndicate manager, Michail Illbruck, aboard for the first hour as the man who is also planning two America's Cup challenges with the same team visited Auckland to inspect their base in Halsey Street, just yards away from the GBR Team which is also cranking up its assault on the Louis Vuitton Cup later this year.
This will be the first time round Cape Horn for Kostecki and he, like many others, has the extra worry of icebergs reported further north than usual at this time of year. At the start it was Shoebridge who had given his fellow-Aucklanders something to cheer as he catapulted off the start line and led the fleet away from North Head in a building 15-knot easterly breeze.
On the helm was the British watch captain Tim Powell, a man much respected for his ability in turn to coax or wrench the maximum speed out of one of these yachts. Shoebridge was not the only one anxious not to lose any significant ground as the fleet heads past the Chatham Islands and negotiates a low pressure system before running into the fierce westerly winds of the Southern Ocean.
"It will be very windy down south and a fairly difficult race downwind to Cape Horn," said Shoebridge. "It's cold and wet, and ice is an issue." Icebergs have been reported much further north than is usual at this time of year.
Already seeking every scrap of advantage, djuice navigator Jean-Yves Bernot made the daring move to take Knut Frostad's pink and black, Lawrie Davidson-designed boat inside Ohinau Island.
It worked well enough to give Frostad the lead yesterday afternoon as the wind first piped up to between 20 and 25 knots – "It looks like we are in for a pounding this afternoon," Grant Dalton had said on Amer Sports One earlier – and then softened off to between 10 and 15 knots. But, later, Shoebridge re-established his small lead.
Those are conditions crews hate, not because they are the most testing, physically, but because the boats respond so dramatically to small amounts of extra oxygen, which is quickly turned into extra speed. In the right vein, big gains can be made; in the losing vein there is major frustration watching rivals pull away.
VOLVO OCEAN RACE: Leg four: Positions, with distance to the finish; 1 Tyco (K Shoebridge) 6,591 nautical miles; 2= SEB (G Krantz), News Corp (J Fanstone), illbruck (J Kostecki). Amer Sports One (G Dalton), 6,593; 6= djuice (K Frostad), Assa Abloy (N McDonald) 6,594; 8 Amer Sports Too (L McDonald), 6,602.Reuse content