Team AkzoNobel has won the sixth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race after nearly three weeks of racing on the 11,000-kilometer passage from Hong Kong, China across the equator to Auckland, New Zealand.
The victory is the team's first offshore win in the 2017-18 edition of the eight-month round the world race and comes on the back of a third place in the last offshore leg - Leg 4 from Melbourne to Australia - and a first-place performance in the in port race on Hong Kong Harbor.
The result moves teamAkzoNobel from sixth to fourth in the overall rankings with five legs left to race before the finish at The Hague in the Netherlands in June.
The team AkzoNobel sailors got off to a strong start from Hong Kong, leading the six-boat fleet out into windy weather, but dropped to fifth place after a mis-timed tack to the north left them almost becalmed off the eastern coast of Taiwan.
Things looked bleak for a while as the main pack pulled away steadily for the next couple of days. But the Dutch team was soon back in the hunt after pursuing a more westerly course which enabled them to cut the corner on the leaders as the fleet turned south towards New Zealand.
Team AkzoNobel was first in and first out of both the light wind equatorial Doldrums zones that the fleet encountered on Leg 6 and at one stage stretched away into a 170-kilometer lead - only to see that advantage all but evaporate midway through the second Doldrums phase.
The team AkzoNobel sailors had to dig deep into their individual mental reserves to hold firm to their big picture strategy to be the most southern boat as the teams spread out across more than 500 kilometers of ocean, hunting for steadier winds in the southern hemisphere.
As the two most western boats, team AkzoNobel and Sun Hung Kai Scallywag (HKG) reaped the benefits of consistently stronger winds and a better wind angle and the pair gradually pulled away from the rest of the fleet.
The tit for tat battle between the leading duo raged the entire way to Auckland with the two boats racing neck and neck down the New Zealand coastline and into the Hauraki Gulf on the final day.
In the end team AkzoNobel was able to prevail and crossed the Leg 6 finish line off the Auckland Viaduct at 12.17.26 UTC (13.17.26 CET) completing the 11,000-kilometer course in 20 days, nine hours, 17 minutes and 26 seconds.
Scallywag finished just two minutes and 14 seconds later.
Team AkzoNobel skipper Simeon Tienpont (NED) was quick to pay tribute to the teamwork the crew had demonstrated during the 20 days of non-stop racing.
"It has been a 7,000-mile match race, it's been unreal, I've never done a race like this in my life," said Tienpont. "The last 16 days have been a neck and neck battle.
"I'm unbelievably proud of the crew because every time we needed to we managed to get another inch. It's a fantastic feeling."
The team's victory in Auckland was all the sweeter for New Zealand sailors Brad Farrand (bowman) and Justin Ferris (helmsman and sail trimmer) who revelled in being the first Kiwi's home.
"Racing into New Zealand on a Volvo Ocean Race boat is a dream I have had since I was a young kid learning to race in Kerikeri," confessed Farrand - who is taking part in his first Volvo Ocean Race. "But winning the leg into Auckland is a huge bonus and something I'm sure I will never forget.
"It's been a tough trip - mentally more than physically - and I'm really proud with the way we have dealt with the highs and lows as a team. We took the rough with the smooth and always came back fighting.
"The goal now is to use this as a springboard for us to keep moving up throughout the rest of the race."
Justin Ferris was born in Kawakawa but now resides in Kerikeri and is a veteran of two previous Volvo Ocean Races.
Despite his considerable experience he admitted that the leg had been a challenging one throughout - particularly the light airs of the final day along the north and east coasts of New Zealand where he said the team's challenge nearly came off the rails in the early hours of the morning.
"There's been nervous times over the last few days as we have always been leading the fleet towards what we knew would be a slow down when we got close to North Cape - the northern tip of New Zealand.
"When we got there we had very little wind and adverse tide against us. Basically we parked up and the Scallywag crew sailed right up to us from behind. It took us a good while to get back ahead and after that it was pretty much a match race all the way to Auckland.
"Brad and I really wanted to be the first Kiwis into Auckland so having bragging rights feels pretty good."
Under the race scoring system team AkzoNobel receives seven points for first place on Leg 6 plus a win bonus of one point.
The eight-point boost moves the team up the overall rankings from sixth place to fourth behind leader Mapfre (ESP), second placed Dongfeng Race Team (CHN), and Sun Hung Kai Scallywag (HKG) in third.
The team AkzoNobel sailors have around a week of downtime to recover from the trials and tribulations of Leg 6 before they are back in competitive action on March 10 in the Auckland in port race.
Eight days later on Sunday March 18 the crew will set off on Leg 7 a 14,000-kilometer marathon through the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn to Itajaí, Brazil.
[Image © Thierry Martinez/teamAkzoNobel]