x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Azzam is back for a second take

The dismasting came as such a jolt that when Mike Danks, the shore-team technical manager, heard he thought it was a prank.

It has not been smooth sailing by any standards for the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team, skippered by Ian Walker.
It has not been smooth sailing by any standards for the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team, skippered by Ian Walker.

As all sport involves clearing clutter from the brain to find utmost concentration, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing sailors have run into some extra clutter-clearing.

As if the freezing oceans and freeze-dried foods gave insufficient challenge, they must shoo from the mind an extra dose of fret and two added doses of pain.

They will have to shoo all that, so it's a good thing athletes tend to be good at shooing.

The fret part will resurface once the fleet leaves for Leg 2 of the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race to Abu Dhabi on December 11 and finds two oceans that reserve the right to get testy.

"The first time we bounce off a wave in a 30-knot wind, for sure it's going to happen: You're going to have your heart in your mouth," said Ian Walker, the skipper of Azzam.

That is because Azzam bounced off a wave on the night of November 5 in the Mediterranean Sea and sent everybody's painstaking 18-month project into unforeseeable disruption. The dismasting came as such a jolt that when the news came back to Alicante and to Mike Danks, the shore-team technical manager, he thought it was a prank. There are always problems, but seldom that. Or, as the watch captain Craig Satterthwaite put it: "You put months and months into this rig, and now it's in three pieces."

With masts so very central, it flings a psychological hurdle.

With that in mind, the team has "left no stone unturned," Walker said, with "decision-making, inspection, analysis, replacement." They know the check stay broke and the D-2 rigging broke even if they do not know necessarily the order.

"It would be a lot easier if, for instance, a pin dropped out and the mast fell down, so as long as the pin doesn't drop out, the mast won't fall down," Walker said.

It didn't happen simply, so their inspection has been complex. Precautions might include dropping the working load a bit. Modifications do include a structural tweaking of the rigging, which team director Jamie Boag pointed out on Wednesday.

Simon Fisher, the helmsman/trimmer with Volvo-navigator experience, took confidence from the mid-November sail from Alicante around Gibraltar to Portugal for shipping to Cape Town. "With this rigging, we've got a good idea of what happened," Fisher said. "You've just got to accept, you know, one of those things, and yet I think everyone will be happy to get going. We've got confidence in what we've got.

"There's no point worrying about what might happen. I'm certainly not. I'm really looking forward to it ... We'll be good. It's a long race. You have to put those things behind you."

"What we've got to make sure of," Walker said, "is that we don't get so obsessed with masts and rigging that we drop the ball on something else. Make sure this doesn't consume us. That's the challenge ... We've got to get back to where we were, which is very confident in our boat and our equipment."

Half of the six boats have faced issues with masts or rigging already. The origins have varied enough that Walker finds implausible any blanket explanation. The Puma crew, using the style of rigging that proved impenetrable in the 2008/09 race, still suffered dismasting and still hung out on the island of Tristan da Cunha until a ship arrived on Friday to fetch.

Those guys whose boats retired from Leg 1 - Puma, Abu Dhabi, Team Sanya - have two helpings of disappointment to forget.

For one, the iconic stops have long been Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro for jaw-dropping scenery. For plural reasons, sailors relish the sight of the Table Mountain backdrop while approaching Cape Town, and now Abu Dhabi and Team Sanya sailors have approached by air, while Puma will chug in by ship. What is more, the Brazilian stopover has moved down the coast from Rio to Itajai.

For a second sigh, these three crews will not circumnavigate the world. Many of the sailors have done so previously, but Walker feels for the Volvo first-timers such as Wade Morgan and Adil Khalid. As a salve, Walker revs up his capable imagination.

Walker said: "We're not going to sail all the way around the world, but I've sat here and said, 'At the end of the race, maybe we should sail to Cape Town so we can sail all the way around the world'."

From Galway, Ireland, to Cape Town, next midyear: That is one outstanding idea, and Table Mountain will wait, still.

cculpepper@thenational.ae