Justin Slattery: Crucial moment as team leave South China Sea

Abu Dhabi Racing well-placed as the Volvo Ocean Race could hinge on the next few days

Abu Dhabi Racing are technically leading the Volvo Ocean Race after taking a hammering in the South China Sea. Photograph: Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race via Getty Images

We're fewer than 1,000 miles into the fourth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, this time heading towards more familiar waters of New Zealand after our short visit to Sanya on Hainan Island in China.

But we have a long way to sail and some fairly crucial decisions coming up as we’re now into the Pacific Ocean and technically leading the six-boat fleet on Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.

While we’re ahead on the official standings, it’s a moot point as four boats are within sight of each other off the northeast coast of the Philippines, while the other two split away when we were being hammered in the South China Sea a few days ago.

Our route to Auckland initially takes us eastward before gradually curving southward as we cross the equator for the third time so far in this race.


But that’s still a week away and before then, what could prove to be the deciding move in this leg is being played out.

To our north, by about 130 miles the all-women crew on Team SCA broke away from their back-of-fleet position to begin working up to better wind conditions.

They timed it well, waiting until immediately after the three-hour position reports came out so that the rest of the fleet wouldn’t see.

They were about 50 miles behind at the time and far enough astern of Team Brunel to disguise their move on the AIS transponder.

Bouwe Bekking then opted to cover and the two boats have split away from the rest of us and are sailing directly away from New Zealand and up the coast of Taiwan as they hope for a slingshot back onto the course at a faster speed angle.

But until then, their velocity towards the finish is actually minus six knots despite sailing at over 15 knots.

South China Sea

Meanwhile, there can’t have been many crew-members across the fleet unhappy to be leaving the South China Sea.

Three days of pounding directly into fairly short but steep seas. The pitching movement would be broken every minute or two by the hull crashing into a trough followed by a wall of white water washing across the boat.

It’s not a nice sensation and sea-sickness is inevitable, especially after a break ashore on terra firma.

Nevertheless, it’s simply a fact of life that most of us accept and get on with, so the simplest way of dealing with it is to chuck it up and get on with the job.

More of an issue is the virus that I'm trying to get over. Half the team came down with it in Sanya and Adil Khalid, our Emirati crew-member went down with it on the morning of the restart so is sitting out this leg as Alex Higby, one of our under-30 reserve crew-members stands in for him.

Just as we reached the Straits of Luzon at the northern end of the Philippines, the breeze eased off so life on board has become a little more manageable.

That’ll make the task at hand easier to concentrate on.

High-stakes gamble

Both Team SCA and Brunel to the north are playing a high-stakes gamble: if it pays off they could open a significant lead that may not open a passing lane until the final approaches to Auckland.

Podium places for them could really tighten up the scoreboard.

However, for us our priority will be to stay close to Charles Caudrelier’s Chinese Dongfeng team who are the overall leaders by just one point from us.

Keeping close means staying in the same conditions unless we catch a break and pull ahead.

We finished second to them in the In-Port race at Sanya but we still lead that series and that could come into play at the end of this race in June if a tie-break is needed. That’s not a remote possibility given the standings so far.

Also with us is Xabi Fernandez on Spanish entry Mapfre and Charlie Enright's American-Turkish entry Alvimedica. With four boats in close proximity, all of us are going to cover one another and move as a pack towards the better breeze and route southward.

With fewer than 5,000 miles to sail it seems strange to say that this entire stage could hinge on what happens over the coming few days and which group has made the correct call on leaving China.