SANYA, China // Eight days ago and 11,000 kilometres away, in Cape Town, South Africa, a worried sailor sat at his computer.
A mainstay in the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing tapestry for months as a reserve crew member and shore-crew supporter, he would miss this China stopover because of mild cost-cutting.
In his unsettling uncertainty, he thought he might try something in the Caribbean.
"We need you in China," Walker said instead. "Are you available?" As words rolled in, he heard Walker say, "We need you for this leg and probably for the rest of the race."
A thought flashed: Did you really just ask me if I am available?
The Abu Dhabi crew member Andrew Lewis had left the team for family reasons, and here came Willcox, who by yesterday afternoon sat aboard Azzam toiling, a sight familiar through three stopovers but unexpected here. "I was quite shocked, actually," Willcox said. "I think I still am, actually."
Soon he said, "It takes you a long time to sort of register that you're actually doing what you've been dreaming of doing your whole life."
He will sail Leg 4 to Auckland, New Zealand, and the transition should be as seamless as transitions get.
"He has sailed on our boat probably more than a lot of the racing team," Walker said.
An award-winning South African who can tell about malevolent seas off the South African/Namibian coast, Willcox had a brief stint with Team Russia's truncated bid in the 2008/09 Volvo Ocean Race. He contacted Walker in the summer of 2010. Walker happened to be home in England, so he met Willcox for a coffee.
"I liked him," Walker said, and across the autumn and winter Willcox made three trips to Abu Dhabi, helping out and trying out as an under-30 sailor.
He did not get that, but as reserve he sailed with the crew from Cascais, Portugal, to Alicante, Spain, and in the In-Port Race in Spain on October 29, when Lewis went home to Hawaii for his daughter's birth.
Then he followed his long and trying path home again after the Abu Dhabi stopover, cycled to maintain fitness and resumed wondering.
The clock ticked. By the next Volvo Ocean Race, he would exceed age 30, rendering the opportunities even scarcer than usual. Old doubts howled. Should he do something else? Get a "real job", as he put it?
In one phone call came one "massive stepping stone", as he also put it. And an ensuing phone call brought a deeply meaningful conversation with his long-supportive father in Johannesburg.
And here in China, Walker stressed yesterday that Willcox had "done exactly the right thing", keeping head down, staying fit et al. "I'm genuinely pleased for him," Walker said. "I really am."
Meanwhile, Leg 4 of the race will start as planned. From there, nobody knows.
Race officials retain the possibility for unusual directives early on, owing to merciless conditions forecast for the South China Sea.
Even with a tropical depression likelier than a tropical cyclone, the chief meteorologist of the race, Gonzalo Infante, wrote in an e-mail: “The problem is that the combination of a northeasterly monsoon surge with the tropical depression can make the South China Sea far from sailable, since the sea state can be very, very tough.”
For the 5,200 nautical miles from Sanya to Auckland the early stages promise by far the severest conditions the fleet has faced across four months. The disturbance “is between here and Luzon” in the Philippines, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker said.
“We have no choice, if we want to go to Auckland, but to sail through the wind,” anticipated at 40 knots and gusting.
Said Walker: “It is a decision for Volvo, how much risk it wants to take with the fleet,” even while skippers will have input.
As compared with the tumultuous Leg 4 from Singapore to Qingdao in the 2008/09 race, this threat has both similarity (same region) and contrast (circumstances).
“The big difference with the last race is that first of all, you could always go hide around the Philippines,” said Ken Read, the Puma skipper, whose previous entry did just that. “That’s a big difference because here; we have to go out to the South China Sea and there’s no hiding.”
As for similarity, “It was relentless,” Read said. “This place is relentless. Quite frankly, it’s not a great place to go sailboat racing this time of year. It’s a great place to visit, but the South China Sea this time of year is no bargain.”
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