x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Abu Dhabi team in final preparations for Volvo Ocean Race

UAE's first entry in round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race will announce final crew this week.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team have gone through a strenuous training regime ahead of the round-the-world race.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team have gone through a strenuous training regime ahead of the round-the-world race.

A few minutes below deck on Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's training yacht delivers the bluntest of messages: you must be lacking in sanity to take part in the Volvo Ocean Race.

The mariners assembled by Ian Walker, the skipper of the first UAE entry in the round-the-world challenge, are acutely aware of the dangers they will face when the race departs from Alicante, Spain, in October.

Several new sailors will soon be selected to share the hardships, too, when Walker completes the crew this week by naming an Emirati sailor as well as three crew members under the age of 30, which is a condition of the race.

"We live like animals," said Walker as he gave a tour of the cramped space he and his colleagues will call home for nine months. "The hardest part of living the rough-and-ready life being at sea for long periods is readjusting to domestic life when you get home.

"My wife always has to remind me of table manners when we sit down to eat a leisurely meal when I have become accustomed to scavenging for whatever there is on board."

A brief inspection of the living area was carried out as he manoeuvred his boat across calm Gulf waters in a warm breeze. How gut-wrenching that claustrophobic and nauseous below-deck zone must be in the wilder regions of the Southern Ocean or North Atlantic, one had to wonder.

Walker was speaking at the end of one of the busiest sessions so far for his crew in advance of the voyage of 39,000 nautical miles, which for the first time has a stopover in Abu Dhabi. Twenty-four hours at sea to reacquaint the crew with night sailing was followed by a photoshoot off the shores of the capital's Breakwater which is the team's temporary headquarters.

On board were some of the cornerstones of a team. Navigating for the trip will be Jules Salter, who guided the winning Ericsson 4 boat in 2009 and three years earlier performed a similar role for the runner-up vessel Pirates of the Caribbean.

"He collects all the weather info and he's the one who recommends to me which direction we take," Walker said. "Nine times out of 10, I would agree with him but it can be a risk-management strategy. Sometimes you don't want to take a chance of detaching yourself from the rest of the fleet even if it seems like a good route to take."

Salter relishes the opportunity to enhance his record. "To be part of a winning team was a special experience and I really enjoyed that," he said. "It's going to be exciting."

The longer the race, the more Salter, 42, comes to the fore. "You do feel the responsibility of navigating a bit more on a round the world trip," said the Englishman who qualified to become a solicitor but instead opted for the outdoor life.

"There is a lot to do and it takes up a lot of time. The good thing is that you get to sail the boat a bit more than usual.

"Some areas we travel through are warm with light winds and that can make night sailing really enjoyable. You look forward to those comfortable moments because this is such a hard race. There are so many variables and there are so many things that can go wrong. It is a question of how you cope with that adversity."

Coping with the close quarters is also a crucial factor on the marathon voyage.

Craig Satterthwaite, one of two watch leaders in the team, said: "You have to choose wisely who you go round the world with. It is a test of character and compatibility as much as sailing skill. That's why we are taking our time picking the people who are going to fit into the group.

"It doesn't take much for a minor incident to turn into something major when you are so close to the same people 24 hours a day."

Satterthwaite, 37, part of the Alinghi America's Cup triumph in 2007, is about to embark on his third round the world race, having been a trimmer/helmsman on the Swedish Match boat which finished third in 1998 and the Pirates of the Caribbean yacht in 2006.

"It would be good to keep that progression going," he said. "I wouldn't be doing it again if I didn't think this team could win."

Simon Fisher, 32, a Barcelona-based Englishman, is also hoping for a case of third time lucky after placements of fourth and third on his last two attempts.

He is enthused about the way the team have developed their competitive edge in such a short time. "Everything is really positive," he said. "The boat is going really well so we've every reason to be confident."

His skipper agreed. "You don't realise how much you have achieved until you look back over the last few months at how much progress has been made," Walker said.

"We have trialled about 12 people for the under 30s slots. We have hired one and we are looking to hire one more soon. Emirati trials have been pretty successful and we are on the verge of selecting a candidate. A lot of work has gone into that."

wjohnson@thenational.ae