The weather conditions in the South China Sea were too extreme for the six competitors in the Volvo Ocean Race to have to tackle in one go. Indeed 8m waves and over 40 knots of breeze were on the cards beneath the squalls. As such the Race Committee decided to launch a preliminary coastal course and then keep the boats in port for a dozen hours. Groupama 4 scored second place on this course, at the end of the 43-mile course which was raced in a very fluky dozen knots or so of breeze.
An extreme weather situation and an unusual course! In fact a depression has formed between China, Vietnam and Borneo, generating strong winds in excess of 35 knots, but above all very heavy seas with waves in excess of eight metres. Fortunately this tropical phenomenon is slipping towards Singapore as it fills in, leaving behind it a more pacified north-easterly to easterly monsoon system. However, there will still be more than 25 knots of breeze as they make for the North of the Philippines via the Luzon Straight, with thick cloud cover which will cause the breeze to pick up considerably in places. To overcome these particularly harsh conditions, the Race Committee has decided to split this 5,220-mile leg between Sanya and Auckland in two, so as to let the worst of the tropical storm roll over. As a result, this Sunday morning (European time), the six VO-70s just took the start of the first section of the race in a breeze of around a dozen knots, which involved a 43-mile coastal course to the South of Hainan.


A scratch

The start of the race wasn't at all favourable for Franck Cammas and his men, who were driven back onto the pin end of the start line, to the extent that Groupama 4 hit the mark. The French boat was forced to perform a penalty turn on itself, whilst the Americans made good their escape! The crews then had to perform two short 3.5-mile laps, each of them off the marina in Sanya, prior to racing along the South coast of the island of Hainan towards the Guan-Yin Buddha, one of the highest statues in the world at 108m… However, with the effect of the shore, the wind was twirling about in the middle of this long downwind section spanning over fifteen miles, to the extent that the boats had to traverse a transition zone which was hard to make out, between an easterly breeze and a westerly breeze!

Pretty fast downwind, Groupama 4 made up ground on the American leader with every gybe, followed by the Spanish boat. However, on the return leg towards the port, the situation became considerably complicated: the wind was blowing onshore but disappeared offshore… Puma didn't spot the danger and in addition to that, led the way into the extended calm which its rivals were able to sidestep. Ken Read and his crew were stuck fast for forty long minutes and the whole fleet got past them! The match racing then came down to Telefonica, Groupama 4 and Abu Dhabi, which were weaving along on a beat in a breeze which kicked back round to the East at around fifteen knots.

At the end of this chaotic prelude, the Spanish scored the best time after four hours of racing and Telefonica will therefore be the first to set off on Monday morning (Chinese time, 2300 hours UTC) with a lead of two minutes thirty-four seconds over Franck Cammas and his crew. The latter were followed one minute twelve seconds later by Ian Walker (Abu Dhabi), then five minutes later by the Chinese boat, which obtained its best score at home. Camper will set off with a 9'13 deficit in relation to the leader and Puma 39'17… 
As such the six competitors will take the start to Auckland at different times early on Monday, in a breeze of around a dozen knots, which will very quickly increase to over 25 knots as soon as they leave the Chinese coast astern of them.

Quotes from the boat:

"It's an important leg in a navigation zone where we've never been before with romantic names like the Philippines, the Solomon, Vanuatu and Fiji… Given the weather conditions this Sunday afternoon in the South China Sea, the race was cut short after the first coastal course along the island of Hainan: the boats will set off again with the same time deficits as they had at the end of the preliminary race. Our aim is to win in Auckland: we trust in Groupama 4" indicated navigator Jean-Luc Nélias before the race.

"This will be a very long and very complicated leg with strong winds and big seas initially, then some transition zones with light airs. It may be the hardest of this round the world! This is likely not to be very quick, heading off upwind into the easterly monsoon, then there will be some sailing with sheets eased where Groupama 4 goes pretty quick… However, there are so many weather options before that, so we'll have to remain very much on our toes in relation to the strategic choices" explained Charles Caudrelier.

"This was probably our worst start since Alicante! However the crew never gives up and it's superb for that. We very quickly got into the match downwind. It was very complicated on the race zone with some huge wind shifts. Fortunately we have a young lad on tactics… Erwan Israël is brilliant and really on top of things and that enabled us to catch up with the leaders. After going around the statue of the Buddha, we were lucky not to get stuck like Puma. However, once again, Telefonica is very optimistic and managed to slip down the inside lane. It's a good result before setting off on Monday morning at 0700 hours (Chinese time)" commented Thomas Coville on the pontoons of Sanya.

Finish of the preliminary course on leg 4 (Sanya-Auckland)

1-Iker Martinez (Telefonica) 4h 02' 14
2-Franck Cammas (Groupama 4) 2'34 astern
3-Ian Walker (Abu Dhabi) 3'36
4-Mike Sanderson (Sanya) 7'32
5-Chris Nicholson (Camper) 9'13
6-Ken Read (Puma) 39'17 

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