Team AkzoNobel has made a strong start to the sixth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race - a complex 11,000 kilometer open ocean passage from Hong Kong, China to Auckland, New Zealand.
After crossing the start line in second position the international crew of nine team AkzoNobel sailors played the local wind shifts to perfection to quickly take the lead as the six-boat fleet ghosted past the towering skyscraper buildings of Hong Kong's cityscape in around eight knots of wind.
Despite the benign start to the leg over the next few days the team AkzoNobel sailors will face punishing conditions with strong headwinds forecast to whip up large waves that will make for unpleasant living conditions on board.
"We are expecting to be in for quite a pounding in 30 to 35 knot winds and big seas," said team AkzoNobel watch captain Chris Nicholson (AUS).
"That will make eating and sleeping difficult and so the priority is to manage the boat and ourselves well so we make sure not to break equipment or bodies in the first few days."
The teams are expected to head east for several days in close formation before weather conditions moderate and they can make the turn south in north easterly trade winds that will accelerate the fleet towards New Zealand.
Before returning to the southern hemisphere the crews will have to negotiate the notorious light winds of the Doldrums - an area of ocean either side of the equator densely populated with potent thunderstorms and capricious squalls as well as vast expanses of morale sapping flat calms.
On Leg 4 from Melbourne, Australia the Doldrums trapped the Volvo Ocean Race fleet for several days in drifting conditions. According to team AkzoNobel navigator Jules Salter (GBR) the return crossing could well evolve into a similar scenario.
"The weather routing has us crossing further east than on the way up," Salter observed. "That could make things better or worse depending on what the scenario is when we get there.
"There could be some compression of the fleet again as the leaders get slowed first, giving the back markers a chance to close up. We will be watching closely how the weather develops over the first week to see where we might want to try to make our Doldrums crossing."
Kiwi sailors Brad Farrand and Justin Ferris are racing home to New Zealand giving Leg 6 an extra poignancy for the duo who are gunning to be the first New Zealanders in the fleet to reach Auckland.
For bowman Farrand, who is taking part in his first Volvo Ocean Race, the leg is the fulfilment of a childhood dream.
"It's no secret that this is the leg I have been anticipating the most," Farrand said. "I have been away from home for quite a while and I can't wait to get back.
"There is a huge legacy of yachting in New Zealand and a bunch of legends who have been through this race before me. As a kid I would go down to Auckland to watch the Volvo Ocean Race boats come in - so it's a special moment now to be racing there myself."
Team AkzoNobel helmsman and sail trimmer Justin Ferris - a veteran of three previous Volvo Ocean Race campaigns - echoed Farrand's sentiments.
"Everyone on this boat wants to be first home," Ferris said. "But it would be an extra buzz for us to be the first Kiwis on the dock in Auckland too."
"I think we have the most New Zealand sailors of any of the crews - it's actually two and half because Cécile might be French but she is an officially adopted Kiwi as well."
Laguette, who made her Volvo Ocean Race debut when she joined the team AkzoNobel line-up on Leg 4 from Melbourne to Hong Kong, was born in France but became a permanent New Zealand resident after living and working in Auckland for several years.
"I haven't got around to asking for my citizenship, but I am planning on doing that soon," she said. "I love living in Auckland, all my mates are there and I can't wait to sail across the Waitematā on the way in.
"Before then we have got to knuckle down for these first few days of tough sailing. We need to look after each other and the boat and make sure we are still in good shape when the conditions moderate."
At 1500 in Hong Kong (0700 UTC/0800 CET) the Volvo Ocean Race position report showed team AkzoNobel maintaining a narrow lead over the chasing pack.
The Volvo Ocean Race fleet is expected to take just under three weeks to complete Leg 6 from Hong Kong to Auckland with the leading boats predicted to arrive on or around February 27.
Team AkzoNobel crew list for Leg 6:
Simeon Tienpont (NED) - skipper
Brad Farrand (NZL)
Justin Ferris (NZL)
Martine Grael (BRA)
Cécile Laguette (FRA)
Luke Molloy (AUS)
Chris Nicholson (AUS)
Jules Salter (GBR)
Nicolai Sehested (DEN)
[Image © Thierry Martinez/team AkzoNobel]