Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald’s chief sports reporter

Yachting: Blasting down the east coast

Photo / Paul Todd / Volvo Ocean Race
Photo / Paul Todd / Volvo Ocean Race

The Volvo Ocean Race is coming home, trumpeted officials when they opened the Auckland race village this week.

The arrival of the fleet this weekend will signal the return to Auckland of the round-the-world race for the first time in 10 years. And from the international sailing community there is genuine excitement to be returning.

Knut Frostad - the Volvo Ocean Race chief executive and a four-time competitor in the event - said the city had a special place in the race's 38-year history.

"All the stopovers of this race are different but sailing to Auckland is a bit like if you're a footballer and you get to play at Wembley," Frostad said. "People are very enthusiastic in the other ports but this is sailing coming home. The fans are genuine, they really care about the sport and they have been following the race for months."

Round-the-world sailors have come to expect a vociferous reception from the Auckland stopovers. In the halcyon days of New Zealand ocean racing in late-80s/early-90s, thousands would line the shore to welcome the boats in.

The success of the Auckland stopover is likely to be measured on how the reception the boats receive this time around stacks up to those glory days.

But after a 10-year absence of the round-the-world race, do we still care?

The Kiwi round-the-world entry may be lagging behind, but New Zealand sailing fans should not let the disappointment of Camper's position detract from what could be another famous chapter in the long history of close finishes into Auckland.

Just when it looked as if French boat Groupama had the leg sewn up, second-placed Telefonica made big inroads into their lead, setting up the possibility of two-boat race into Auckland after all.

Overall race leaders Telefonica have been steaming through the Pacific over the past 24 hours, narrowing the distance to around 80 nautical miles yesterday. Despite sailing a tactically poor race early on, the Spanish boat is extremely quick and they have positioned themselves well for a late assault on the leaders.

The leg into Auckland is famous for its epic battles down the coast - the tussle between Sir Peter Blake's Steinlager 2 and Grant Dalton's Fisher & Paykel in the 1989-90 race is still regarded as one of the most thrilling finishes to a leg in the history of the storied race.

But the stretch of coast between North Cape and North Head is just as well-known for producing cruel twists for the round-the-world fleet.

In the 1985/86 race L'Esprit L'Equip were becalmed for two days off the coast of New Zealand, while Lion New Zealand were slowed when they hit a whale.

Swedish Match led the fleet around Cape Reinga in the 1997/98 race, but found themselves parked up after sailing into a wind hole. Dalton, this time as skipper of Merit Cup, rounded the cape in fourth, and, having seen the rest of the fleet becalmed, cut the corner, sailing through the breakers at Cape Reinga to steal a march on the three boats ahead of him.

The 200-mile stretch of eastern coastline into Auckland is again shaping up as a pivotal moment in the race.

Can Groupama become the first French boat to win a leg into Auckland and leap up the leaderboard? Or will Telefonica sneak past them to make it four from four?

But more importantly for those wearing the blue blazers - how many will witness the drama?

- NZ Herald

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