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Wade Morgan, bowman and boat captain of Abu Dhabi Racing's Azzam, says sailors spend a lot of time scoping out their Volvo Ocean Race competition 'hoping to figure out what they're doing'.
Wade Morgan, bowman and boat captain of Abu Dhabi Racing's Azzam, says sailors spend a lot of time scoping out their Volvo Ocean Race competition 'hoping to figure out what they're doing'.

Azzam sailors have keen eye for ship shapes

As they are tied up next to each other at the dock, it is common for the sailors in the Volvo Ocean Race to size up the competition, just to see who did what differently.

This would have to be one of the most unusual arrangements in all of sport.

As the tension accumulates toward a start date tomorrow, the six yachts of the Volvo Ocean Race repose beside each other in the dock. They bob so close to each other that Carl Lewis probably could jump from one to the other in sequence.

From left to right in an inlet on the Mediterranean coast, just around the corner from the beach, their brightly painted bows all but glow: the Puma black (named Puma's Mar Mostro), the Groupama orange (Groupama 4), the Camper red-burgundy (Camper), the Abu Dhabi black (Azzam), the Telefonica blue (Telefonica) and the Team Sanya orange-yellow (Sanya). They have lived like this for much of October already, the crews eyeballing each other for hints ahead of the in-port race Saturday and the start of the first leg, Alicante to Cape Town, on November 5.

"In this sport, the tool is a big part of it," said Wade Morgan, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing bowman and boat captain.

"They can see yours, you can see theirs. You spend a lot of time looking, hoping to figure out what they're doing."

He pointed out that in Formula One, team members are not allowed in enemy garages, yet for this gruelling-beyond-gruelling, nine-month, 39,000-nautical-mile race, everybody accesses the boats along the same little wharf.

There is even a bit of an art for staring indiscriminately, as the helmsman/trimmer, Simon Fisher, demonstrated by hunching over slightly as if pretending not to look.

"When we first arrived you sort of pull into the dock," he said, "and all the other teams are there. They're interested, but they don't want to appear too interested."

Teams might spot something on a rival tool and think: "We should have done that."

Morgan joked he had developed a brazen technique: "I just walk up," he said. "I ask them to point out something I might have missed. 'Any features you've been working on? Anything I should know about?'"

Making it odder still, the crews all know each other, and Fisher reckons he has sailed with "most of them" at some point or other.

Pointing to the Telefonica boat, just to the left shoulder of Azzam, he noted that he sailed for that very team last time around.

For demonstration, he pointed out the emergency rudder gudgeons affixed to the sterns on the Abu Dhabi boat Azzam and its next-door neighbours, Telefonica and Camper. Sure enough, each of the three boats had utilised a different construct for the emergency rudder gudgeons, even as each hoped never to have to use them, and even as it is not "a performance-related issue", according to Morgan.

As he spoke in the late afternoon, music played on loudspeakers throughout the area.

The public milled about, strolling and gawking.

The line of team hospitality areas rose from behind the stern, the Abu Dhabi house bright red featuring a greeter in a kandura.

Up on the hill back in town, the Castle of Santa Barbara pretty much hovered over things as ever (well, for the past 1,200 years or so).

Another practice day waned for Azzam.

Butti Al Muhairi, the 27-year-old reserve Emirati sailor and shore team member, donned a diving suit and plunged beneath the boat for cleaning, proving the capabilities of this former oil-rig hand might be boundless.

Paul Willcox, the South African reserve sailor, called the scene "very cool" as he anticipated duty Saturday for the in-port race, replacing the under-30 sailor Andrew Lewis, who has returned much of the way around the world to his home in Hawaii as his wife, Danielle, gave birth to a daughter, Taylor.

Lewis will return to start the first leg, that 6,500-mile trek that consumes all these windy minds at the moment.

"Actually the first leg is probably the most exciting," Fisher said. "There's a lot of anticipation, anxiousness. Basically we started this process nine months ago, and we're about to see if we've made the right decisions.

"You can't draw any strong conclusions about our speed until we're partway into the first leg.

"In two weeks we'll have an idea, probably. Potentially that could set the tone for the next nine months."

Right about then, a photographer asked him if she could snap some shots of the inside of the boat.

Said Fisher, smiling as usual during a good-natured refusal. "That's the only bit we can hide."

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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