A mentally draining trek south through the Pacific Ocean awaits the fleet of the Volvo Ocean Race as they set sail for Auckland today.

After a fairly soft start, mainly light winds in the three legs so far, the fleet will set off from the Chinese port of Sanya in near boat-breaking conditions today, with 30 knots of wind and a nasty sea state forecast for the start of leg four.

It could make for quick progress to the equator but, once there, that's where the real mental challenge sets in. In the equatorial calms, the fleet will encounter around 400 or 500 nautical miles of light winds, meaning they will spend around a week making negligible progress. They ain't called the Doldrums for nothing.

The long, windless days drifting in up to 40C heat are what New Zealand sailor Dave Swete of Team Alvimedica rates as the toughest part of the race so far.

Advertisement

"It's been harder from the mental side of things than the physical challenge because you're sitting out there in 40 degrees of heat and you're not going anywhere for days, so it is a bit more of a mind game," said Swete.

The 31-year-old may find the Doldrums more frustrating than most in the fleet, thanks to a self-imposed deadline to get to Auckland. Swete, one of two Kiwis aboard Team Alvimedica, has tickets to New Zealand's World Cup cricket match against Australia at Eden Park on February 28 - the current forecast has the fleet arriving in Auckland around March 1-3.

"We're going have to sail pretty fast for me to make it," said Swete. "My mate worked it out - he's not even a sailor. We need to sail at something like an average of 11.31 knots to make it there on time. That would be a very, very fast leg. It's not out of the realms of possibility, but we'll see."

Regardless of whether Swete makes it in time for the big match, he expects sailing into his home port will be special. One of the highlights of his first round the world race in 2011-12 with Mike Sanderson's Team Sanya was seeing the Three Kings Islands for the first time before a memorable sail down the coast.

"We got the first little boat come out to meet us really far up the coast and then more and more boats slowly started coming out of the bays and following us down the coast. It was a pretty amazing reception," he said.

With the absence of a New Zealand entry in this year's edition, Swete hopes Team Alvimedica, with the youngest crew in the race, will be adopted by Aucklanders as the "home team". The withdrawal of Team Vestas Wind, which features Kiwi veterans Tony Rae and Rob Salthouse, from leg four means Alvimedica have the most New Zealand representation. Another New Zealander, Daryl Wislang, will be aboard Abu Dhabi Racing.

Team Alvimedica, skippered by Charlie Enright, are fourth in the overall standings after the three legs, and Swete reckons that's a fair reflection of how the team have sailed early on.

The young crew was finalised only a few weeks before the start of the race in October last year, and still have some distance to make up on the better-prepared teams.

Advertisement

"We're slowly improving. We got fifth in the first leg, a fourth in the second and then a third into [Sanya]. We want the trend to keep going that way."