Round-world fleet sails again as cyclone subsides

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Sailing - Chinese boat keels over in Southern Ocean 'mayhem'

(file picture) The Dongfeng Race Team (R) sets out for Leg 4 to Auckland in the Volvo Ocean Race, offshore sailing's most prestigious round-the-world race, from Sanya, in southern China's Hainan Island on February 8, 2015. AFP PHOTO / VICENTE MIÑA (AFP Photo/VICENTE MIÑA)

Auckland (AFP) - The Volvo Ocean Race's six-strong fleet finally set sail for the most daunting leg of the nine-month offshore marathon on Wednesday after the threat of Cyclone Pam subsided.

The deadly weather system, which swept through the South Pacific and led to widespread destruction and at least 11 deaths on the archipelago of Vanuatu, caused a three-day postponement of the fifth leg from Auckland to Itajaí in south-east Brazil.

Skippers and organisers agreed to hold up the start of the 6,776-nautical mile stage to allow the cyclone to clear the fleet's planned route up New Zealand's north island coast.

Dongfeng Race Team (China) led the fleet out of Auckland's waters in light winds, but the fleet will not have too long to enjoy the benign conditions.

By the start of next week, they are forecast to reach the Southern Ocean where winds of up to 40 knots (75 kilometres an hour) are expected to greet them.

From there, they take on the notorious Cape Horn off the southern tip of South America, graveyard for many a sailor over the centuries, where waves of up to 30 metres (100 feet) have been recorded.

The fleet will then turn north to re-enter the waters of the Atlantic for the first time since November, where they will race up the eastern Brazilian coast to Itajaí.

The boats are expected to endure three tough weeks of sailing to complete the route.

Simon Fisher, the British navigator of overall race leaders Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, believes the leg will help point to the identity of the overall event winners.

"There's nowhere else on earth where you can do so much fast downwind sailing for so long," he told reporters.

- Rite of passage -

"It's going to be the first time the whole fleet sees a lot of wind for an extended period and it might shuffle the pack. Keeping in one piece all the way to the Horn is important, because that's where the race will be won and lost."

The same leg caused havoc on the fleet in the last edition in 2011-12 with only stage winners Puma escaping serious damage and eventual event victors Groupama limping home with a makeshift "jury rig". Two boats of the six-strong fleet failed to finish the leg.

Stu Bannatyne, a six-time race veteran who has been recruited by Team Alvimedica for the leg, describes the stage as a rite of passage for any serious offshore race sailor. "This is the best sailing in the world," he told reporters.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing started the stage level on eight points with Dongfeng Race Team, but are race leaders courtesy of their superior in-port series record.

They are trailed by Team Brunel (Netherlands) on 14 points, Team Alvimedica (Turkey/US) and fourth leg victors MAPFRE (Spain) on 16, and all woman Team SCA (Sweden) on 24.

The fleet will cross the halfway point during the fifth leg. In all, the boats will cover 38,739nautical miles (71,745 kilometres), over nine legs, visiting 11 ports. The race is scheduled to finish on June 27 in Gothenburg, Sweden.