Cyclone Pam forced Volvo Ocean Race organisers to make their third postponement to the start of the fifth leg of the round-the-world offshore yacht race on Monday.

Following a meeting with the fleet’s six skippers, race management decided to delay the stage from Auckland to Itajaí, Brazil until Wednesday morning at 9:00 local time, 67 hours behind the previously scheduled departure on Sunday.

They had previously postponed the start of the 6,776-nautical mile leg to Monday, and then Tuesday, to protect a fleet of boats worth around 30 million euros ($31.6 million).

Auckland viaduct, where the boats are berthed, has escaped by far the worst of the 270-kilometre per hour (kph) cyclone, which wrought havoc on Vanuatu and neighbouring islands in the South Pacific.

However, organisers were concerned that once the boats reached the open sea, they would soon run into serious trouble in winds of more than 100kph and a churned-up sea state, creating waves of up to 15 metres.

“To have started on the original timing would have been very stupid,” race CEO Knut Frostad told reporters on Monday.

“It’s the sailors who make the decisions in the Volvo Ocean Race. It’s their decision what they do. If I were a competitor and skipper, and I have been a few times in this race (four races from 1993 to 2005), and I had race management starting me on Sunday, I would have stayed on the dock.

“At best, I would have anchored and just waited. I also think that a cyclone, which has killed many people in some amazing islands that we just raced through north of New Zealand, it’s not just a weather system; we’re talking about a natural disaster.”

Frostad added that in 22 years as a competitor and CEO of the race – formerly known as the Whitbread Round the World Race – he had never had to contend with such conditions.

Spaniard Iker Martínez, skipper of MAPFRE and a sailing gold medallist in Athens 2004, sympathised with Frostad and his team’s dilemma of when to send the boats out.

“It wasn’t an easy decision for the Volvo Ocean Race, that’s for sure. The cyclone is passing now. It’s very strong, and once she’s gone she’ll leave a high pressure behind and, as incredible as it might sound, the wind will decrease really, really quickly to almost nothing,” he told reporters.

“Equally, if you leave too early, you can get into trouble in winds too strong to sail in.”

The nine-month race, generally reckoned to be offshore sailing’s toughest test, visits 11 ports in all, covering 38,739nm and every continent. It is scheduled to finish in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 27. – Agence France-Presse

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