Four of the race teams have been in Qingdao for nearly three weeks and, after making various repairs, they competed in the In-Port race on Monday. They've since spent their time this week making final adjustments and tune-ups, as well as provisioning for the long stretch ahead.
The fifth team, Ericsson 3, is currently racing towards Qingdao, hoping to finish leg four in the early hours of Saturday morning before joining the start for leg five to Rio.
The 12,300nm course includes two scoring gates (at latitude 37'00.000S and Cape Horn), and two ice gates to keep the fleet to the north and safe from a drifting iceberg that has now broken up, spewing lethal bergy bits and growlers across the ocean. The Islands of New Zealand (East Cape) is also a mark of the course, which the fleet must leave to starboard. The leg is expected to take around 34 days to complete.
Today, the four skippers in Qingdao met the media and spoke of the challenge ahead. The race leader, Ericsson 4, is leaving China with a bigger lead than when they finished. A win in the In-Port race, and a decision by second-placed Telefónica Blue to change its rudders at the cost of a three-point penalty, have seen to that. But Ericsson 4 skipper Torben GRAEL (BRA) says he's still looking over his shoulder, despite holding a seven-point lead.
"Telefónica Blue is a very competitive team and I think they will improve their performance," GRAEL said. "They have shown in the last couple of legs that they are a very strong team and we will have to work very hard to beat them. PUMA is also very strong."
For his part, Telefónica Blue skipper Bouwe BEKKING (NED) said the decision to take the penalty was easy. Following two consecutive leg wins, his team is confident that the new configuration for this leg will make them more competitive in the high winds and waves they're sure to encounter in the Southern Ocean.
"We have a lot of confidence in that set-up," BEKKING said. "The first leg [a fifth place finish], we weren't good as a crew and we've learned a lot since then. We've been able to start learning our boat as well…and I think the rudders will help us a lot in these conditions."
Running just one point behind Telefónica Blue is Ken READ's (USA) PUMA, which has yet to win a leg although READ thinks that particular streak may be about to end.
"There is so much to look forward to," he said. "We have the team and the boat to win a leg and there's no reason why we can't win this one."
The PUMA skipper has never rounded Cape Horn before and admits that reaching the iconic waypoint will be a massive achievement. Similarly, Green Dragon skipper Ian WALKER (GBR) is looking forward to his first taste of the Southern Ocean. As a relative newcomer to offshore sailing, this will be his longest passage at sea. He says the experience of the Volvo Ocean Race has changed him as a sailor.
"I'm fortunate to have some very experienced sailors on the team so I've learned lots of specific skills," he said. "But if I had to summarise one thing that I've developed, I'm maybe a little bit more patient than I was before…a little bit. But I'm still working on that!"
At 07:00 UTC this morning Ericsson 3 was 191 miles from Qingdao. Routing software is predicting a finish for the team at approximately 06:30 UTC tomorrow. The team suspended racing in leg four due to damage, which has since been fixed in Taiwan. After resuming racing just before midnight (UTC) on Wednesday night, the Nordic team is in a dash for the finish line in Qingdao, where the team will make a short pit-stop to provision and pick up crew, before starting leg five. If the weather cooperates, they may even be in time to start with the rest of the fleet.
Live audio commentary of the leg start is available through www.volvooceanrace.org, beginning at 04:45 UTC.
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