Craig Satterthwaite helming at sunset onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing during leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand.
The latest projection of the finish time for Leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean race is being put at the early hours of Sunday morning. Ideal for the Auckland party set at the Viaduct harbour.
The top three places would seem to be locked in, with Groupama (Franck Cammas) projected to be first to finish, by both weather feeds used by www.predictwind.com!PredictWind. She is variously four and six hours ahead of the second placed boat Puma (Ken Read), with Telefonica about six hours behind the US entry - a prediction from both feeds.
Getting the same result from both feeds used in the routing function of PredictWind, generally indicates a high degree of certainty of outcome.
There are several factors which could come into play as the fleet makes its approach to New Zealand.
First is that the projection method in www.predictwind.com!PredictWind uses a common set of boat performance data (polars) - so there could be some variation in the actual performance of different boats in different conditions.
Second factor is that the fleet is split into two groups, with Groupama, Abu Dhabi and Puma in the eastern group, closest to Fiji. The western group of Telefonica, Camper and Sanya are closer to the Australian coast.
The tactic of the eastern group would seem to be to soak down and position themselves ahead of the western group, however that may easier said than done.
The third factor is that the fleet is moving into the influence of the SE Trades, which can be seen in the graphics as the yellow and orange arrows.
Effectively the SE Trades will be head winds for the fleet, meaning they will have an uncomfortable bash to New Zealand, and will be hard on the wind. Whether the boats can all sail at the same pace in this condition remains to be seen.
And then there is the issue of how the yachts handle the transition into the SE Trades, with the Volvo Ocean Race dashboard showing that the race leader, Groupama had hit a soft spot in the breeze and was sailing at an average speed of just under 7kts for the previous three hours, while Camper was sitting on 11kts in the same period. Were the Spanish/New Zealand entry be able to hold that pace, then there would be some erosion of the healthy margin enjoyed by Groupama.
Another factor will be the approach into Auckland, with the SE breeze expected to dog the fleet all the way into the City of Sails. www.predictwind.com!PredictWind is recommending the boats to stand well off to the east of Auckland before tacking for the finish. On paper that looks a very bold move, with the more likely option being that the fleet will tack down the Northland coast. However as we have often seen so far in this race, the weather routing is not usually wrong, and is ignored at one's peril.
On the basis of what we are seeing now, there will be no easy reach, or spinnaker run, down the Northland coast - and the race is expected to be reasonably wide open almost to the end. The next couple of days will be telling, as the trailing boats have to make inroads into the lead currently enjoyed by Groupama.
It is worth noting that earlier in this leg, off the coast of Japan, Puma was 280nm adrift of the leader and looked to be gone for all money, but pulled most of that back inside a couple of days, and is now back in second place.
The crews will be only too well aware that a competitor can be a real threat if they are in a different part of the ocean, as is the case with the split fleet at present.
Currently it is not anyone's race, and nothing will be certain until the boats are a lot closer to the finish.
Buying shares in an Auckland waterfront bar, would seem to be a sound move, as Auckland watches the last miles of the race on Saturday evening and then fires up for an early Sunday morning welcome party.
Postscript: On the latest update (0724NZT) The party in Auckland may be a long run affair with two of the feeds available under Predictwind producing an arrival time of between 0600-0700 on 11 March, and other saying 3.45pm on 11 March and the fourth opting for a time of 9.41am on 12 March, local time. The out-take from that level of variation is that there is still a lot of uncertainty over the weather pattern and date (of no surprise to New Zealanders). and meaning that the passing lanes are still wide open, at this stage.