x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Sailors long for the good old days of the Whitbread

A desire to take the Volvo Ocean Race around the world has also brought with it fractured legs and dull, upwind routes.

Puma Ocean Racing powers through a swell in the South China Sea, waters that are notoriously slow.
Puma Ocean Racing powers through a swell in the South China Sea, waters that are notoriously slow.

"Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." - Satchel Paige, the American sage and baseball pitcher

A layer of nostalgia has visited the Volvo Ocean Race, and nostalgia normally warrants two words:

Oh, no!

Often the best response to someone practising nostalgia involves the polite but rapid exit from the room, but when the nostalgist has sailed around the world, weathered the world's longest sporting event or followed those braveries closely, well then, all right.

A little listen might be harmless.

They say this event used to be better, nobler, more rugged. They say this because it used to log faster speeds and dodge more Southern Ocean icebergs. They say the game suffers for its increased worldliness.

Revering the 20th-century olden days of the Whitbread Round the World Race (the former name of the Volvo), they think newfangled stops in Abu Dhabi and China have caused fractured race legs and dull, upwind routes.

The China stopovers of the last two races have presented the malevolence of the winter weather in the South China Sea, which caused an awkward departure postponement last weekend.

Here's a guy with the unbelievably cool name Thorsten, commenting on the race website: "What kind of ocean racing is this, splitting legs into chapters in fear of pirates and even strong wind and sea conditions? I want the Whitbread back! Go, Steinlager, go!"

Seeing again that evocative word "Steinlager," this novice decided to read up on the 1989-90 race, won by Steinlager 2 with the skipper Sir Peter Blake.

Now Blake, of course, was among the coolest people ever.

He won the Whitbread, the Jules Verne and the America's Cup (twice).

He had lucky red socks and a laudable environmental conscience.

Kiwis making trips to England have made a point of visiting his grave site.

He would have greeted Volvo's decision to postpone the Leg 4 departure because of a mighty storm as something, on balance, just not all that good. (Many current sailors agreed.)

It's just that the looking back, the 1989-90 event achieved the worst possible sporting-event by-product. It led to the formation of a committee.

In general, you know sports or sporting events have issues when they provoke such boundless horror as formations of committees.

For one thing, the race featured boats of many different sizes, divided into classes, straightaway an annoyance to follow.

Some of the boats were nearly twice the size of some of the others. Some of the larger boats finished legs 10 days ahead of some of the smaller boats. The last finisher finished 52 days behind the winner.

By now, that's the kind of thing that makes you think people in the past must have lacked for some marbles, sort of in the way it used to be legal for people to smoke on planes.

This was a sporting event?

OK, it was, but certainly it had fundamental pockmarks.

Now, when the event got its boats in order, it had some fine days in the races in between.

Craig Satterthwaite, the most experienced Volvo sailor on the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team, can tell of them.

When he makes the point that for a sailor, it's preferable to cover 600 nautical miles in one day as opposed to 250, it's fitting to nod. These guys earn the right to their adrenalin.

You might ask him: But could this be a better test, managing all the variations?

He might answer, in essence: Not particularly.

In further inconveniences spoken last weekend, the Abu Dhabi bowman Justin Slattery cringed as he said, "Upwind", discussing the nascent Leg 4 to New Zealand. Another potential upwind leg.

Some of it has owed to unexpected weather patterns, but still: more upwind. Relatively boring, and another missed chance to see Azzam exhibit the downwind prowess most expect of it.

In fact, as the skipper Ian Walker noted, Abu Dhabi has made modifications to boost upwind capability.

Speaking of this region, the Puma skipper Ken 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."

So the snags have proliferated. But an upside, the route makes it round-the-world in an unprecedented and arguably truer way. And all the boats are the same size. And nostalgia retains its lousy memory. And foremost, without Abu Dhabi and Sanya, the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race probably would not even exist.

Existence does trump all.