x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's to-do list that never ends

Preparing a sailboat for a nine-month, round-the-world ocean race entails the kind of work that would frighten a lazy person.

Ian Walker, centre, the captain of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Team, has two Emirati crew; Adil Khelid, left, and Butti Al Muhairi.
Ian Walker, centre, the captain of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Team, has two Emirati crew; Adil Khelid, left, and Butti Al Muhairi.

The workload is a beast that devours days and then weeks. It sprouts. It burgeons. It dominates. It replenishes itself effortlessly. It possesses no mercy.

Preparing a sailboat for a nine-month, round-the-world ocean race entails the kind of work that would frighten a lazy person. It makes keen handymen of elite sailors. It makes a gaggle of tents by the shore seem as some bustling village. It even slants calendars.

"The workload's horrific," said Mike Danks, the technical shore manager for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.

"Just a massive job list," said Wade Morgan, a bowman on the Abu Dhabi entry in the Volvo Ocean Race.

"You never get to the end of the list," said Ian Walker, the captain of Azzam, which will oppose six other boats beginning on October 29 on the Spanish coast.

The list streamed down Walker's laptop screen: Make wet box drain … Stacking bunks … Wet sand hull … Build emergency steering system … Service winches … Foot chock on safety locker …Fuel tank insulation … Paint on hull bolstering …

Eight in the morning to eight at night, seven days a week, around and around the clock, until Danks says: "A Sunday's the same as a Monday in my book. Doesn't make any difference to me. I look at a calendar only for the numbers."

On Friday afternoon the watch leader Rob Greenhalgh sat on the floor of the sail loft tent with legs splayed and flip-flops extended and massive forearms labouring as he apportioned the food bags.

In a tent that slightly resembles a Formula One garage, the bowman, Justin Slattery, stood at the clamorous grinder "making a fitting to make my life easier on the boat." Walker showed the newly constructed foot chocks that will lend stability onboard.

On Saturday morning Butti Al Muhairi, the 27-year-old reserve Emirati sailor, toiled at a table tightening the strings on a bunk. "This is our bed," he said with a smile.

In the crucial shore team alone, Danks has "three boat builders, one engineer, one electrician, two riggers, two sail makers" and, he adds several minutes later because the list is so overwhelming, "a winch guy." Among the onboard crew, he outlined, Craig Satterthwaite specialises in rigs, Justin Ferris in sail-making, Morgan in "a lot of the system stuff", Greenhalgh in the food, navigator Jules Salter in the "electronics and sci-fi."

They make their own everything, even their own biodegradable bags for food and whatnot. Just making the rigging alone proves ceaseless. For a boat unveiled on July 5, the toilet is on its third version already, "and that's not the finished version," Danks said. Essentially: "It's a small, boatbuilding company we're running. That's what it is."

Buying a new boat, he said, "is not like buying a new Ferrari when it comes out of the box perfect every time." Then he used the word "customising". Then he used it again, and again, and fittingly, because they're constantly customising. Said Morgan: "It could be a breakage, or it could be you want to change your toothbrush holder."

"Quite often," Walker said, "the skill is knowing what not to do as well as what to do" because of time and money, so the list items get priority numerals between "1" and "4," with "1" being most urgent.

"There are all these decisions," he said, "and you wouldn't have any idea all that's going on unless you were inside it all." Details. Weight. "Weight drives our life," he said.

On Friday afternoon, the raved-over Azzam - "the highest-quality one I've ever seen," Danks said - got a lift on a crane, itself a mighty production with umpteen decision points, just for one task which turned out to be the aforementioned "Make wet box drain."

While shore-team engineer Tim Sellars checked underneath the boat with onboard-team navigator Salter so that Salter could comprehend everything - the learning never stops even for the experts - Walker explained the continuing refinement of the "wet box".

Sitting over "the brains of the keel system," as he put it, he said, "in a perfect world when we sail along, we want this to drain ... We brought the boat up on the crane purely to get the water out of here because we want to fill some voids."

He pointed to a gap and said that while the gap is necessary for the keel to move, allowing in water, "we've just got to make the water get out faster than it gets in."

Just above, he noted new water-bottle holders around the edge of the kitchen area.

"Butti made all these," he said.

cculpepper@thenational.ae


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