The racing is close, as close as it has ever been, with just 62 nautical miles from Ericsson 4 leading the fleet to Telefónica Blue bringing up the rear. Positions have been juggled as the fleet negotiated a band of cloud and calm as it made the transition into the new, more stable breeze. Spinnakers have been replaced by headsails as the fleet finds itself back on the wind and once more on port tack.
Ericsson 4 finally despatched PUMA at 07:00 UTC today after a day of sailing side-by-side and switching places. PUMA skipper Ken READ (USA) described the match as '"the world's slowest ever game of chess." Ericsson 4 is now 330nm from New Zealand's East Cape on the North Island and 11nm ahead of PUMA.
Skipper Magnus OLSSON (SWE), who has Ericsson 3 in a dead heat with PUMA, is his usual upbeat self. Only 11 miles spits the top three boats and overnight, the racing had been very close.
"It is a fantastic feeling that we are this close to each other and that there are only a couple of hundred miles left to the first scoring gate. It's going to be tight and very exciting," OLSSON said. He explained that his team has been sailing a little bit lower than their rivals. "I think they are a bit afraid of us since we have small gains the last two days. At least, it feels like that," he said.
Telefónica Blue has had an unpleasant 24-hours, when, around midnight, ship's time, they found themselves caught under a massive cloud, which refused to release them until daybreak.
"For hours on end we were battling with massively shifting winds and long periods of calms as we struggled to make headway in the right direction. It was as if a massive foot had descended from the heavens and stamped right on us," said Simon FISHER (GBR).
Navigator Tom ADDIS (AUS) put his hand up and said, "I chose the wrong option course-wise and we ended up in a world of pain for the next five hours or so." As the team sat becalmed, Ian WALKER (GBR) managed to steer Green Dragon past and Telefónica Blue lost all the valuable miles they had gained that day on the leader. "It hasn't been a good day for Telefónica Blue downstairs, but the guys on deck have done a fantastic job of keeping the yacht moving in the breeze that we are in," ADDIS said.
The boat is now back in good breeze, making fast miles straight down the track at around 16 knots, but, having lost the Dragons astern, WALKER's men have managed to give them the slip again and are now lie ahead by just two miles. This pair has a runway of just over 250nm in which to sort out the order before they arrive at the point-scoring gate.
Meanwhile, temperatures are dropping and the sea is becoming increasingly choppy - a sign of things to come.
"At least with the first signs of the deteriorating conditions, we know that the left turn and the east heading isn't too far away - which means the finish, the families and freedom are just around the corner," wrote Guy SALTER (GBR), media crew member (MCM) of leading boat Ericsson 4, hopefully.
The finish may feel like 'just around the corner', but, once through the first scoring gate, the fleet still has to contend with two ice gates set in place to protect the fleet from a large ice berg that has been breaking up and drifting north, and the infamous Cape Horn - another place where points can be won or lost. In between lies the Southern Ocean and Green Dragon's Dutch navigator Wouter VERBRAAK has just a stark reminder that the Southern Ocean demands respect.
"It is blowing 22 knots and we just made a very costly little mistake. What normally is a rather tricky manoeuvre has now turned bad. The jib bag is inside out and we will have to redo it. The jib is already more than 80 per cent unhooked from the forestay, and it takes one bad wave for the whole sail to be washed into the ocean. It is a clear message that the champagne sailing of the last week is over.
"I have a quick check of my harness and safety line. Clipped on? You bet! It is in jib changes that people are washed over the side. We are always trying to minimise the time in the 'dead zone' on the bow, and now we are stuck. Not good.
"We sort the bag out and wrestle the jib, which is now filled with hundreds of litres of water, back onto the stack at the back of the boat. No time to take a breath, as we are straight into the hoist of the new sail.
"The reality check of this evening is a harsh reminder for me of what lies ahead for the next two weeks. It will be all about keeping the boat and the crew together, and I have to think for a moment of our good friend Hans HORREVOETS whose tragic loss at sea [from ABN AMRO TWO in the 2005-06 Volvo] is a bleak reminder to us all of how easy things can take a turn for the worse.
"Every time when we are out there, in the dead zone, I am happy to see that everybody is taking safety seriously and clips on. As Guillermo [Guillermo ALTADILL (ESP)] says: 'Clip on mate. The lifejacket only means that you will be dead floating. Stay on the boat.' A harsh reality we all have in the back of our mind."
Leg Five Day 18: 13:00 UTC Volvo Ocean Race Positions
(boat name/country/skipper/nationality/distance to finish)
Ericsson 4 SWE, Torben GRAEL (BRA) DTF 7,353nm
PUMA Racing Team USA, Ken READ (USA) +11
Ericsson 3 SWE, Magnus OLSSON (SWE) +11
Green Dragon IRL/CHI, Ian WALKER (GBR) +60
Telefónica Blue ESP, Bouwe BEKKING (NED) +62
Delta Lloyd IRL, Roberto BERMUDEZ (ESP) DNS
Telefónica Black ESP, Fernando ECHAVARRI (ESP) DNS
Team Russia RUS, Andreas HANAKAMP (AUT) DNS
Volvo Ocean Race Leaderboard
1. Ericsson 4, skipper Torben GRAEL (BRA), 49 points
2. Telefónica Blue, skipper Bouwe BEKKING (NED), 42 points
3. PUMA, skipper Ken READ (USA), 41 points
4. Green Dragon, skipper Ian WALKER (GBR), 30 points
5. Ericsson 3, skipper Magnus OLSSON (SWE), 24 points
6. Telefónica Black, skipper Fernando ECHAVARRI (ESP), 21 points
7. Delta Lloyd, skipper Roberto BERMUDEZ (ESP), 12 points
8. Team Russia, skipper Andreas HANAKAMP (AUT), 10.5 points
Go here for all the news on the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09
Volvo Ocean Race - www.volvooceanrace.org