Forty-five thousand people crammed into every available space in the Viaduct Basin in downtown Auckland as the boats left the dock, accompanied by the now-familiar rock music, for the start of leg four of the Volvo Ocean Race.
The start line was set between a Ports of Auckland tug, positioned just off North Head, and HMNZS Resolution Bay, a naval survey vessel, on the Rangitoto end of the line. Two Volvo turning buoys were set, the first just north of Milford Beach, some four nautical miles from the start line and marked by the tall-masted vessel Soren Larson; the second, a further two miles up the course, was set off Browns Bay/Torbay and marked by IACC boat NZL40.
As the minutes to the start ticked down, the largest on-water spectator fleet seen so far during this nine-stage event gathered on either side of the starting corridor, to savour the spectacle of these grand prix racers jostling for position.
All around the harbour, the headlands were black with people. Six helicopters hovered overhead gathering news images, while back in the Viaduct Basin the crowds sat down for lunch and enjoyed the day's action on the big screen.
As the smoke rose from the starting gun, fired by Her Excellency The Governor General of New Zealand, Dame Sylvia Cartwright, the fleet made a clean start on starboard, beam reaching in a 16-knot north easterly breeze in moderate seas.
Tyco immediately set the pace on the North Head end of the line, followed by SEB just up to weather of her and in a tight group with Amer Sports One, News Corp, and illbruck. Staysails were hoisted and this group were racing just metres apart.
Djuice produced a clear air start on the Rangitoto side of the course, hoisting her staysail later than the rest of the fleet, but keeping clear wind and clear air. Neal McDonald also took Assa Abloy to the right hand side of the course, battling with Lisa McDonald's all-women team who were right in touch, but to leeward, and taking metres out Assa Abloy with every gust.
At first turning mark, four miles from the start line, Tyco led the group of illbruck, Amer Sports One and SEB, followed by News Corp, Djuice, Amer Sports Too and Assa Abloy. The fleet hardened up, hoisting No 2 jib and full main, ploughing through lumpy conditions caused by the spectator fleet and the rising 17-knot breeze.
Waiting at the second buoy, marked by former America's Cup yacht NZL 40, was a huge spectator fleet. Tyco, keeping up a storming pace, with local Kiwi skipper Kevin Shoebridge, was first to round the mark and lead the Volvo fleet out into open water towards the Southern Ocean. Fellow New Zealander Grant Dalton, joined for this leg by American Paul Cayard, took Amer Sports One round just 28 seconds behind Tyco, with illbruck 34 seconds behind and SEB 39 seconds behind Tyco respectively.
News Corp led the trailing pack, one minute 25 seconds behind Tyco followed by djuice at 1 minute 42 seconds, Assa Abloy at two minutes 6 seconds and finally Amer Sports Too at two minutes 20 seconds.
djuice took the most inshore route at the treacherous Mercury Islands, even passing inside Ohinau Island, to take the lead from News Corp. In the middle of the fleet the battle is on for News Corp, who is currently just at the front of a close fight with Tyco, illbruck and SEB. Tyco has managed to maintain her position from a more leeward course, with illbruck and ASSA ABLOY slightly to windward of the main bulk of the fleet. Amer Sports Too has taken a more offshore route and is approximately three miles to windward of the fleet.
All V.O. 60s are sailing along in a steady 10 - 15 knot easterly wind as the boats head south away from New Zealand.
04:00 Update: Place Changes in Hauraki Gulf.
With the V.O. 60 fleet beating out towards Colville just to the south of Great Barrier Island, places have been changing after Tyco's early lead off the start line and round the first two turning marks, and the first six boats are still only separated by less than a mile.
With two more points to pass, the Volvo Ocean Race fleet will then head on into the Southern Ocean for the second time in the race, on this leg 4 to Rio de Janeiro (total distance of 6,700 nautical miles). For the last few days, the weather pattern has given light winds and sea breezes and the boats are battling their way through this, in order to get south as fast as possible to hook into the fast moving low pressure systems of the Southern Ocean.
The fleet is expected to arrive in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on or around February 19th.
1 Tyco Racing 06591 miles to go
2 SEB Racing 6593, 2 miles behind leader
3 News Corporation Racing 6593, 2
4 illbruck Racing 6593, 2
5 Amer Sports One Racing 6593, 2
6 djuice Racing 6594, 3
7 ASSA ABLOY Racing 6594, 3
8 Amer Sports Too Racing 06602, 11