Volvo Ocean Race organisers have launched a 24-hour watch system on their fleet but latest predictions on Sunday indicated that Cyclone Pam was likely to miss Auckland after wreaking havoc in the South Pacific.
The race’s official meteorologist, Gonzalo Infante, said on Sunday (1030 UTC) that a change of course by the deadly weather system would keep the eye of the storm around 200 nautical miles from the New Zealand port where the six boats are currently moored.
Organisers had already been forced to postpone the start of Leg 5 to Itajaí from Sunday (0100 UTC) to no earlier than midnight on Monday (2400 UTC)/Tuesday midday local time because of Cyclone Pam, which struck the island of Vanuatu with devastating effect at the end of last week.
Latest aid agency reports indicate that at least eight people have been killed in Vanuatu with some 90 per cent of houses in the capital Port Vila destroyed or damaged.
Other islands were also affected by the 270 kilometres per hour (kph) cyclone, which is reckoned to be one of the worst ever to hit the region.
Race management have a round-the-clock watch system on Auckland’s viaduct to monitor the weather and its effect on the boats.
“We now don’t expect the impact in Auckland to be as high as first feared,” said Infante. “Readings around 20 miles north of Auckland have been about 50 knots (92.6 kph) and the impact predictions in Auckland have been downgraded.
“We now expect the worst of the conditions around late Sunday CET time, with wind speeds in the Race Village within the range 30-35 knots (56-65 kph) and not as heavy rain as previously expected. A small change in the track of the cyclone looks like it has prevented a much bigger problem for us.”
Infante said the main issue now for the re-start was the sea state which is likely to greet the fleet once it ventures out in to the South Pacific and then Southern Ocean.
“Once the boats go past the most eastern point of New Zealand the systems look like they’ll be pretty rough. We have to make sure the fleet has options to escape if the sea state is really bad.”
Skippers on the six boats – Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Dongfeng Race Team (China), Team Brunel (Netherlands), Team Alvimedica (Turkey/U.S.), MAPFRE (Spain) and Team SCA (Sweden) – will meet on Monday evening local time in New Zealand to discuss with race management if it is safe enough to sail from Auckland the following day.
“For sure, it’s the right decision to delay the fleet,” Ian Walker, skipper of race leaders Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, told reporters on Sunday.
“Nobody wants to send us out there to break boats, damage sails or, worse still, injure people.”
“The situation is different to what we’ve ever had before in the 41-year history of this race,” said Team Brunel’s Australian navigator, Andrew Cape.
“With a cyclone in the race course at departure time, you can’t send boats into it, it’s just ridiculous. It’s like driving on a greasy road – there are just some things you don’t do.”