TEAM New Zealand lead the pack in the early stages of leg four into Auckland as the Volvo Ocean Race fleet bashes upwind across the South China Sea.
A brutal sea state left over from several days of gale-force winds has made conditions uncomfortable for the fleet with waves as high as five metres reported by the crews.
A drifting start in the wind shadow of Sanya's towering mountains belied the testing weather the crews found themselves in just hours later, after the wind and sea quickly ramped up, powering them towards the Strait of Luzon at speeds of up to 20 knots.
The monster waves have made life difficult for the teams, the crews holding their breath as the boats launch off steep waves and land with a sickening thud.
The crew of the Camper-sponsored boat have always felt confident about the conditions faced on this leg, having trained in the rugged Southern Ocean. And so far the Kiwi team have proved equal to the task, leading the charge to the first waypoint at the top of the Philippines.
Late last night Team New Zealand led Groupama by around four nautical miles, with Telefonica a further six miles back in third.
However with Camper further south of the chasing boats, the distance-to-finish data can be a little misleading. Skipper Chris Nicholson said a clearer picture would emerge once the fleet had rounded the Philippines and began to head south.
"There was a slight difference in thought with Telefonica and Puma sort of on one plan, us, Sanya, Groupama and Abu Dhabi on another. But really I don't think there'll be much in it getting up towards [the Philippines], we all want to go the same way."
The Camper skipper believes that with few opportunities for any boats to make any decisive moves, the fleet will remain tightly bunched over the next few days. But there is the potential for a significant split in the fleet to develop once they round the first waypoint.
The six-boat fleet will take about three days to cross the South China Sea to the Strait of Luzon. The fleet is expected to complete the 5220-nautical-mile leg to Auckland around March 8.
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