x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A swift and unwanted return for Azzam

The Shore Team of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team will not have counted on seeing their crew quite so soon.

As it inched into the harbour at a distance at 10.13am yesterday, it looked so squat and nondescript that you might have mistaken it for some vessel far less glamorous.

Yet as it whirred to the wharf to reveal devastated sailors in their bright-yellow garb, it took on an entirely different look. It became one of the ugliest things you ever saw, its ugliness worsened by the thought of its beauty in normality.

Well, normality clearly had abandoned Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam, its 31-metre mast bent sickeningly forward and then grotesquely all the way backward, exposing wiring at the folds, protruding off the stern and telling of one wretched Mediterranean night only 11 men will ever comprehend.

Having sailed toward Cape Town on Leg 1 for only six hours and change, the 70-foot yacht had motored back and found an Alicante bereft of its Saturday giddiness. Workmen dismantled temporary pavilions. Forklifts hauled around heavy stuff. The wind gusted through an exhausted setting.

Yet somehow here came Azzam, back into the quiet, its exhausted Shore Team braced for days of voluminous work and inadequate sleep. The Shore Team and the sailors hauled off the sails; the tenacious sailor Justin Slattery worked at the bow; the Emirati sailor Adil Khalid and the reserve Emirati sailor Butti Al Muhairi exchanged a freighted dock-to-boat handshake; Jamie Boag, the team director, recommended that reporters give the sailors space; and one little word seemed to hover over the premises.


Surely after 18 months of scarcely mitigated labour, this did not happen on an early wave plenty steep but no more compelling than stuff Azzam had faced on its way from its Portuguese base to Spain. Surely the crew did not finish a momentous yet flawless sail change with everybody on deck only to land from a wave and see that the mast "just kept going", as Ian Walker, the skipper, would put it.

Surely on the first morning of the 20-day trek to Cape Town, the meticulous skipper would not have to say: "You get the sort of cracking-carbon sound but it's remarkably peaceful, and I guess once it's all fallen down it's almost like an eerie calm, and then you've got to stop the mast from smashing into the hull."

Surely this ruminative 41-year-old man would not have to endure the thoughts he outlined: "I think you go through a cycle, don't you? The immediate thing is, What happened? Why did it happen? Was it my fault? What could I have done differently? And then the ramifications. What does it mean? Are we going to get to Cape Town? The sponsors? What are they going to say? There's 100 questions that go through your mind. You go through a range of emotions …

"You have to count your lucky stars that nobody was hurt. That we have a spare mast. That we have contingency plans."

Surely the mast lights did not go out on Azzam the very first night so that Team Sanya almost struck it slipping by in the darkness, and surely Wade Morgan, the Australian bowman and boat captain, debuting in a Volvo Ocean Race slot earned through a 40 year old's experience at age 30, did not have to don lifesaving gear, plunge in and cut at the top of a mainsail.

"Wade was able to make several attempts at cutting, however, a very violent sea state made it extremely dangerous for him to remain in the water," media crew member Nick Dana wrote.

"The crew retrieved him promptly and were able to get the mainsail off the lock, allowing it to slide down the rig and be pulled from the water."

We know these guys view these things as more routine than the rest of us would, but surely no, not now, not this soon.

After all, just think of Saturday night. The six boats of the 2011/12 race had made off to sea, and the people whose DNA went embedded in Azzam - Boag's description - had worn an evident lightness when encountered on the street. It had ruled their lives and then departed, and they had fresh freedom.

In an Italian restaurant, Walker's wife, Lisa, had eaten pizza with their two young daughters. Across the way, Morgan's wife, Nikki, dined with their toddler daughter and America's Cup friends. Simultaneously and unbeknownst to them, one of their husbands had gone into a rude sea, and the other had gone into a cruel range of emotions he absolutely did not deserve.

Words might fail, but you could always begin with "harsh".