x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Looking at all the angles

Is it too early to wonder what's wrong with Azzam? Here is one educated, consensus answer: Yes.

Emirati Adil Khalid guides Azzam into port in Abu Dhabi.
Emirati Adil Khalid guides Azzam into port in Abu Dhabi.

Is it too early to wonder what's wrong with Azzam?

Here is one educated, consensus answer: Yes.

That is what the impartial sailing savants say, and that is the response when you ask the Azzam crew and its supporters, who after all must sustain confidence.

While Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing finished fifth (out of five) in Stage 1 of Leg 2 from Cape Town, and fifth (out of five) yesterday in the Stage 2 from Sharjah; and while it holds fifth place overall, 47 points from the lead; and while the Volvo Ocean Race has a nagging habit of hewing to early form … there still lurk too many vagaries for being deeply demoralised.

"We're just pretty frustrated now," the watch leader Craig Satterthwaite, a veteran of four Volvos, said.

"We're very competitive people," Ian Walker, the skipper, said.

"Nope, nothing wrong, still very happy with our boat," Jamie Boag, the team director, said.

The audacity of hope has no scarcity of sources.

Start with the nature of the 39,270-nautical-mile race. Seven legs remain, and skippers speak of variables and possibilities.

Puma's Ken Read: "Today with light air down the coast, we would have been the boat to beat. That's why it's an around-the-world race. Every dog has their day."

Camper's Chris Nicholson: "We've got our strong points but we just haven't had too much weather that winds up with our strong points. Perhaps the next leg." Read as: "Nobody ever said this race wasn't strange."

From there, you can move on to the angles.

Many of us went limping out of high school geometry and ceased with angles, but sailors clearly aced the stuff and kept going.

Describing a "60-70-80-degree" reaching angle, with "15-to-20 knots" of wind, Walker said, "That particular angle and wind speed, we didn't have the legs the other guys had."

Stage 2 revealed that those same conditions and Groupama made for a giddy marriage.

As for Abu Dhabi's gorgeous black craft, Azzam, Satterthwaite said: "We're starting to find out about the boat. Reaching is not our fastest angle.

"Hopefully we're going to find points of sailing where we're faster than the other boats.

"Today we found out our weakness, hopefully we will find our strength."

Certainly the camp resonates hope. After Azzam had to wait in the harbour for the introduction of the first four boats, and after it arrived at last in the early darkness, the fireworks made another New Year's Eve in the sky as a backdrop in what Boag accurately called a "milestone" for the campaign.

The sailors kidded around as they lined up for the applause and the date-champagne shower, while Justin Slattery munched on a date.

In a scenario you might call unfitting, they had just spent ample time out on the boat, waiting. They had not spent them anguishing or bickering or brawling or any of that fun stuff.

"We know what the issues were today and it's pretty obvious for us where we need to do better," Satterthwaite said.

He said: "We couldn't really get a break today. Everywhere we looked, the door shut. The position we were in, we weren't fast enough to drag ourselves out."

Walker said: "I guess it's a bit like Formula One. Some cars are better on some tracks. Clearly, today didn't suit us."

While Abu Dhabi has one designer (the esteemed Farr Yacht Design), three of the five contestants have another (the esteemed Juan Kouyoumdjian), and Walker thought the Wednesday in the Gulf favoured the latter. Azzam lapsed behind early on a track that punished lapsing behind early.

Impartial sorts still wonder if traces of doubt might linger from the mast trauma of Night 1 of this race, when Abu Dhabi had to turn around and return to Alicante, ultimately retiring from Leg 1 and replacing its mast with a back-up.

As Walker said: "This was essentially Leg 1 for us, the first time we lined up against the other boats."

Walker also said: "The mast is fine. I was happy with the mast. We had good conditions to test the mast in Cape Town, so that didn't affect anything."

With Read assessing that his Puma boat overcame any lingering yips from its own broken mast on the third night of Leg 2 in the notorious Agulhas current, Abu Dhabi probably has recovered also, and simply faced other vagaries.

Satterthwaite cited the "slow-moving cold front" that bedevilled the fleet, and said: "We didn't do a very good job getting through it … We weren't in the right place, but could have been very, very close to the right place."

That statement illustrates the fickleness - and, in turn, the hope - of sailing's endless puzzle.