A lingering hope died at sea on the way from Brazil to Miami.
The inkling that Azzam finally might thrive going downwind, in a Volvo Ocean Race riddled with eccentric weather and upwind sailing, gave way to dour realisation.
“The thing that’s most depressing, if you’d like, is we don’t have one condition where we feel like we’re equal to them or better than [the other teams],” skipper Ian Walker said. “Whatever the wind conditions, we always lose out. And that’s the most depressing thing. We don’t seem to have any condition where we’re faster, which makes it bloody hard.”
As Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s debut turn at the round-the-world sailing race reached Miami in fifth place for the leg, fifth place in every leg it has completed and fifth place overall, Walker’s assessment drew echoes everywhere.
“It’s pretty obvious now that we’re not fast enough to compete,” said Craig Satterthwaite, the seasoned watch leader in his fourth Volvo campaign.
“We were hoping we were going to be competitive downwind. It doesn’t appear we are … We had an inkling that we were going to be all right downwind, but we’re not.”
Simon Fisher, the helmsman/trimmer in his third Volvo campaign, recalled his turn as navigator in 2005/06, when the youngster-driven ABN Amro II boat found strengths and weakness and occasional podium spots, a reward that has eluded Abu Dhabi. “We don’t really have a super strength,” Fisher said while remaining optimistic. “We’ve not really been super-strong in any condition.”
“We’re a little bit slow and we’re not as good as we hoped, but we’re not direly bad,” said bowman Wade Morgan. “We’re not a long way behind. It’s a little bit. But it’s enough.”
The six-boat table and the chatter around the boats convey another bonanza for the Argentina-born Juan Kouyoumdjian’s yacht-design firm, based in Valencia and established in 1997. “Juan K” boats won the previous two Volvo races, interrupting the dynasty of the esteemed American outfit Farr Yacht Design.
In this 2011/12 running, the three Juan K boats in the six-boat fleet have won all six legs thus far. Telefonica (Spain) won the first three legs to hog the overall lead ever since Leg 1; Groupama (France) won the fourth leg into New Zealand and lurks seven points behind in second place; and Puma (United States) won the fifth and sixth legs to rebound from a first-leg mast breakage and threaten from fourth place, only 14 points from first.
By the time Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing got into the game in early 2010, Juan K was not an option.
Abu Dhabi went with Farr, which took 13 of the 15 podium spots in the five races between 1989/90 and 2005/06 and third place last time.
Farr designed the requested boat in the constrained time, and one month after launch last summer Azzam won the Fastnet in England and Ireland, beating Groupama in the process.
Media crew member Nick Dana recalls people telling him: “You guys are lights-out,” and: “It’s a funky design you’ve got, but maybe you’ve got something.”
Out on the ocean, though, the sailors say the evidence has mounted that Azzam cannot keep pace with the Juan Ks.
That evidence became “so graphically illustrated on the last leg,” Walker said in Miami, especially at a moment when Azzam briefly raced level with Telefonica, three days out of Brazil. “And they put 12 miles on us in a day, in a straight line, in not very demanding conditions,” Walker said.
Satterthwaite said: “When you wake up in the morning and there’s a boat right next to you, and you wake up 24 hours later and they’re 10 miles in front of you ... you can’t hide the fact.”
He said: “Things have to roll our way for us to do well. Generally when we’re side-by-side with a boat, we struggle.”
Jules Salter, the winning navigator of the 2008/09 race aboard Ericsson 4, called this “a different kind of challenge and in some ways interesting, to see it from the other side.”
While he allowed that it’s “a bit depressing, just to not be racing,” because it’s “what you miss the most”, he recollected his runners-up turn as navigator on Pirates Of The Caribbean in 2005/06, fighting uphill against victorious ABN Amro I. “If you could hold ’em off for two or three days before they sail past you, you feel a little bit better about yourself,” he said. “You take the little victories where you can.”
When Pirates won the last leg that time, it did carry meaning even with the overall race decided.
Still, an aberration to the Juan K rule shouts from 78 points ahead of Abu Dhabi. Tucked in third place amid the three Juan K boats is the consistent Camper With Emirates Team New Zealand.
They remain one point ahead of Team Puma and firmly in contention even after their chief operating officer, Grant Dalton, a winner of the race in his sailing days, blasted boat designer Marcelino Botin in the New Zealand press during the Auckland stopover, saying he would not work again with Botin.
Of Camper’s odd-man-in status, skipper Chris Nicholson said, “Yes, there is [pride]. Certainly we’ve had our share of hard times being a non-Juan K boat, actually.”
Comparing Camper to Azzam, Walker points out that Camper’s design seems to find conditions that favour it (including upwind), while others around the boat tents assigned superiority to Nicholson and crew.
While parcelling out the freeze-dried food in Miami for the continuing leg to Lisbon, the Azzam watch leader in his third Volvo campaign, Rob Greenhalgh, said of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing: “This was put together as a winning team, or a podium team, and the reality is, it’s been mismanaged, and as a result, we haven’t performed where we should be.
“So right now everyone’s a bit annoyed, really. But that’s what it is. Everyone can’t win.”
Greenhalgh said the mismanagement had come “in every aspect from the boat to the personnel to the scheduling to the disciplining”, but largely in sketchy communication. “Communication’s a big one,” he said. “If there isn’t a good communication thread through the team, then it’s always going to be a struggle.”
He said, “I think a lot of people you’ve got here are very good. I just think it’s a lot of bad management and mismanagement and no real guidance or leadership, really,” a reference he said applied to the sailing-team management across the board and resulted from leaders “inexperienced at what’s required”.
Walker said the two structural crises, a mast breakage in the Mediterranean Sea and hull delamination in the Pacific Ocean some 1,750 miles from land, had revealed competence.
“If anything, it’s enabled us to demonstrate how organised and how methodical we’ve been, and how we’ve been able to run the team under a lot of duress,” he said.
That duress began, of course, the first night of the race out of Alicante, Spain, when Azzam came down off a wave and had her mast sever into three ghastly chunks. Dana recalls “just a big bang and carnage. Everything was really hectic. Just sounded like a war zone at that point, one bang after another, you really can’t differentiate it”.
Right off the bat, Azzam had to turn around and motor through the night solemnly back to Alicante, leading to four days of repairs, a restart and ultimately a Leg 1 retirement.
“I think we lost a lot of steam at the beginning,” Dana said.
“It was tough to gain momentum. It’s such a competitive fleet. The level is very high. The first leg, you get knocked out of it, then the fleet continues to rise. We didn’t have a chance to learn like the other boats did in the first leg.”
“Being the last boat out on the block and then having that happen, it’s hard to catch up,” Salter said.
In running everything through his busy, analytical mind, though, Walker can’t seem to achieve revision.
“One of the things that’s frustrated me is that if I look back at the project, what would I do differently?” he said. “There’s not a lot I’d do differently.”
He thought of the broken mast and said, “Maybe you could say we made a mistake going for that radical rigging, but having said that, we did test that for eight months. I wouldn’t change where we built the boat or who built the boat. There’s very little I’d change. It’s just the thing isn’t fast enough.”
As Greenhalgh outlined, the fates in this game tend to cement early on, especially with boat design. Any outfit bold enough to enter takes a tormenting risk right there.
After the early decisions, the race itself becomes a “freight train,” he said, immune to drastic changes.
“Once you’ve started the race, if the boat’s slow, you can’t do anything about it,” he said. “You plan your boat design very early on. You’ve got to get that right.
“The first decisions you make are very important, the boat ones, the personnel ones, and they’re decisions you’ve got to live by the next 18 months. And if they’re wrong, the campaign’s fundamentally flawed.”
“The thing about this race,” Satterthwaite said, “is you just don’t know if you’re going to be competitive or not. You prepare as well as you can and you do all the things you think are right, but if there was one answer everyone would win”.
He spoke of Telefonica, which detoured with damage on Leg 5 but rebounded to scare victorious Puma at the end, and of Camper, which fixed its Leg 5 damage in the water on the Chilean coast so it could sail around Cape Horn alone and claim a precious 15 points for fourth place in Itajai, Brazil. And Satterthwaite said: “We just can’t seem to cop a break. Unfortunately you just get your head down and do the best you can.”
“Sometimes,” said Greenhalgh, “you learn a lot more losing than you do winning. I think everyone’s learnt a lot this campaign.”