A tactical minefield lies ahead for Team New Zealand as they look to consolidate on their strong start to leg four of the Volvo Ocean Race.
Having pursued a more southerly route since leaving China, Camper have reaped the benefits of a progressive wind shift to the right and were last night leading French boat Groupama by 16 nautical miles. Team Sanya were two more miles back in third, closely followed by Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. Overall race leaders and Team New Zealand's main rivals Telefonica were in fifth place, 35 miles off the pace.
Despite having thousands of miles of open water sailing ahead of them on the way to Auckland, Camper skipper Chris Nicholson believes their exit from the South China Sea could prove decisive.
Strategies on how to exit the South China Sea effectively vary wildly. Options include shooting away to the southeast and just shaving the Philippines, while another suggests heading north around the island of Taiwan.
It is a pivotal moment in the leg, where winners and losers can be made.
Nicholson said the outlook for the next 24 hours was extremely complicated creating a potential minefield ahead.
"Our weather models are divided at the moment so there's no clear picture on what the best option is for exiting the South China Sea. The one thing that does seem to be guaranteed, though, is that it's going to be painful," he said.
There is huge pressure on Team New Zealand to get the call right. Tactical errors have cost the crew dearly over the first three completed legs. The Camper crew led the way early on in legs one and three only to come unstuck by poor decision-making.
Another similar slip-up would mean serious recriminations once the team get in to Auckland, with Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton making it clear that anything less than a win on their homebound leg will be unacceptable.
Camper narrowly escaped disaster yesterday after avoiding a huge unlit buoy, something navigator Will Oxley described as a "complete show-stopper in the dark". The many oil rigs and platforms dotting the area south of Hong Kong have also kept the crews alert.
Aucklanders will get the opportunity to see the boats racing up close during next month's stopover.
The course maps for both the in-port racing and the start of leg five to Itajai, Brazil, have been confirmed and will see the six-strong fleet tearing up the Waitemata. The action will be visible from the shore, with prime viewing areas North Head and around Westhaven.
The massive logistical operation to build the race village for the Auckland stopover began in earnest this week. Over the next 14 days the operations team will construct a race village with a footprint of 20,000sq m and co-ordinate the arrival.