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Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team members celebrate their victory in the first in-port race in Alicante yesterday.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team members celebrate their victory in the first in-port race in Alicante yesterday.

Azzam's perfect launch in Alicante

Faces beamed. Azzam had won the first in-port race to assume the first lead available in the Volvo Ocean Race.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing mark historic day in style with victory in Volvo Ocean Race in-port curtain-raiser

Picture a calendar with all its little squares for each day, and then aim the eye toward Saturday, October 29. Abu Dhabi-wise, that little square ought to teem with streamers and confetti.

It shone morning, afternoon and night.

Even as the morning dumped rain on Spain and dampened the Volvo Ocean Race opening ceremony just outside, Jamie Boag spoke mirthful metaphors upstairs in the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing hospitality pavilion.

Once just a gaggle of men around a boardroom table at Khalifa Park, the team had toiled the hard and evolving months to reach a crescendoed day as one of six entries in the round-the-world mega-marathon.

"It's funny," said Boag, the team director who oversees the business side. "I guess the closest thing for people to relate it to is that it's like a wedding day. It's all the preparation, planning, all the emotion, and then it's here.

"Eighteen months ago it seemed very far away. It's emotional. Next Saturday is a lot more emotional."

That is funny, because while next Saturday will bring the departure upon the 6,500-nautical-mile Leg 1 toward Cape Town, South Africa, and while that outset can forge throat lumps in tough men such as those of the Shore Team, Boag did look plenty emotional when he re-materialised upstairs come late afternoon.

By then, the sun had insisted on its turn. Faces beamed. The Abu Dhabi boat Azzam had won the first in-port race to assume the first lead available in the nine-month slog, and while everybody cautioned against making big fireworks of it, a bale of streamers and confetti would not seem overwrought.

In fact, such had been the sentiment just off the Spanish shore that it took Adil Khalid, the 23-year-old Emirati sailor, and rather swept him sternward.

"Well, he's very young," the 41-year-old skipper, Ian Walker, said with an arm draped around Khalid. "We have to try to calm him down. If he goes to the back of the boat before we cross the line again, I'm going to kill him."

Khalid, a newbie to a strand of sailing so dramatically different from his Olympic dinghy background, kept smiling so broadly that it seemed the smile might just go ahead and reach around the back of his head.

"The success," he said. "The winning. The feeling. A great feeling. I had a good feeling in the morning when I woke up. We did everything in the right way, no mistakes, and a great day for Abu Dhabi. A happy day."

Already Khalid had spoken to Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority chairman, who already had phoned Walker on the incoming yacht.

"He's so excited," Walker said, "and he never even watched a sailing race before."

That illustrated the value. Even if the first in-port race does not tend to foretell the ultimate winner, and even if Walker deemed it "important not to start jumping to conclusions," it did confer on a debuting Abu Dhabi team a sense of viability, well-being, enthusiasm.

It lent a week of puffed-out chests, of "feeling like part of a winning outfit," before the real gruel begins.

Walker said: "It's like the Fastnet," in which Azzam finished first and zoomed to a multihull record in August just beneath England and Ireland.

"It makes everybody stand up a bit taller and believe in ourselves. But then we don't get carried away with it because you don't know when the next one is going to be."

Arriving last by design in the procession of post-race introductions, Azzam backed in with Khalid holding the UAE flag end-to-end. Five of the sailors' wives greeted them on the dock.

Helmsman/trimmer Simon Fisher answered questions over the public address in Spanish and English, using the word "feliz" (happy) in the former and saying in the latter, "A great feeling to come out of the box strongly, but it's a small step in a very, very long race."

A few revelations had turned up. In fickle winds and conditions Ken Read, the Puma skipper, called "stressful" ("I mean, that was stressful"), Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing had learnt that it "performs well under pressure," as Walker put it.

Azzam herself seemed "quite slippery in light winds," that word "slippery" desirable in the sailing domain.

Foremost, though, was the elation. The massive mission had reached its long-awaited October 29, then it had finished that date up top for a little while at least.

It lent a little uplift from here to Abu Dhabi and back and, besides, as Walker quipped, "We've got to compete with Manchester City."


Follow The National Sport on @SprtNationalUAE & Chuck Culpepper on @DubaiChuck

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