x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Anything but smooth sailing for Azzam crew ahead of Volvo Ocean Race

Ian Walker and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing are preparing for the next race barely after unpacking from last one, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Ian Walker, right, is in the UK gearing up to get his Azzam crew up and running again. Mike Young / The National
Ian Walker, right, is in the UK gearing up to get his Azzam crew up and running again. Mike Young / The National

It takes, Ian Walker calculates, about three months to get back to being vaguely normal again, to start eating properly again, to start going to the gym, and most importantly, to start reconnecting with the family. Three months, he says, before you start looking forward rather than loitering around in the past of ifs and buts and what-could-have-beens of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR).

The race lasts nearly nine months. The most recent, in which the double Olympian was the skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam – the first Arabian contender in the race's history – ended in July 2012. Though the race is held every three years, preparations for the next one have already begun and, in a sense, even though Azzam's entry was confirmed earlier this year, they never quite stopped working.

Is there another sport as vast and consuming, and as draining of its participants as this?

"Well, physically you lose a lot of strength and mentally it is a huge drain," says Walker. He is in the UK currently, gearing up to get Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Azzam up and running again. The team will race in three events during the famous Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight, beginning tomorrow. They will then defend their title at the Fastnet Race from August 11.

"It is a lot of time away from family and you need to try and reconnect with the things in life that are important to you," he says. "After the last race I took a little bit of time off to recover the mind and body. We spent quite a lot of time reviewing the last race and trying to make plans moving forward, how we can do some things better, what we did well. There was a review period, a debriefing.

"Then Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority committed to doing the race early this year so we worked with them to work on budgets and plans and liaising with Volvo. So, really, we never stopped working, just kind of 'throttled back a little bit' would be the right expression."

Walker has spent time in the interim racing with other teams and on different yachts and boats. He has done a little bit of coaching as well but really, Azzam, with whom he admits to having built quite an attachment, has never left his head.

He was in Abu Dhabi through all of last winter, and for the past three months has cranked up preparations, refitting and relaunching Azzam. Now there will be no relenting until the VOR begins in October 2014; as he acknowledges, there is no stop in the cycle of competing, reviewing, then preparing for the next race.

Azzam and Walker went through some rough as well as exhilarating days in the 2011/12 race: the broken mast in the very first leg that crippled their campaign just as it had begun; the hull damage later on in the fifth leg as they sailed from Auckland to Itajai; a couple of disappointing legs generally that meant they finished fifth overall. But they won three in-port races, most memorably the Abu Dhabi race, and won the seventh leg, from Miami to Lisbon.

Walker is unflinching in his assessment of what he calls an "emotional roller-coaster" of a time. "There was a lot of excitement and good points but of course we also had some great disappointments, like the breaking of the mast, the damage to the boat and the performance of the boat which was slightly less than what we had all hoped might be achievable in the time we had.

"It really was tough: tough on me as a leader of the team because you have to pick people up, including yourself, when things don't go well. Fortunately we had enough high points and the stopover in Abu Dhabi was so successful and the team so embraced by the UAE. The overriding feeling was a positive one but at the time there were a lot of hard decisions and some really difficult times we had to get through."

The outlook for next year's race, even at this early stage, is brighter. Race organisers have some significant changes, compelled essentially by the desire to attract more participants and an accompanying need to reduce the costs of entering the race.

The last race had only six boats, the fewest in its 40-year history. In 1981/82 the VOR had 29 entries, and 23 in 1989/90.

Organisers have decided that all boats will be of the same design (unofficially, the Volvo 65), built by the US firm Farr Yacht Design. All entrants will have, in effect, the same boat.

One of the immediate effects will be a levelling of the playing field, placing greater emphasis, and allowing greater influence, to each crew in the race, as well as to nature, as opposed to design technology. It is an intriguing move, the kind that a number of sports are contemplating but not yet acting upon. It is more so, given that the last race was said by organisers to be among the most tightly contested in history: four of the six teams were in contention for overall victory with around a week's sailing left, that in a race stretching to nearly nine months.

"Rather than it being a design competition, almost, it's now very much a question of we can't influence design or the build so it's a level playing field," Walker says.

"It's going to be quite exciting, come race time, because the emphasis will be very much more on the people and which is why the first thing we are doing is putting a lot of effort into making sure we select the right people for the team."

It is tempting to imagine that the change is so significant little of the experience from 2011/12 will come in handy this time round.

That may be the case, to a degree, Walker concedes. But plenty from his experiences of the last race will become input into this new attempt.

"Some of it isn't relevant anymore because much of it was related to the design of Azzam. But that's now out of our control. I think it is possible to take learning on board. I guess there are always things you can do better in any walk of life - even if you win every leg, you look back and you know you can do better in some places.

"In terms of organisation, you can improve and one example is that we need a greater emphasis on coaching, personal development and support and sports science.

"That is something we are taking on board. There are always things, specifics, or to do with weather and strategy we will take on board and small things in how we manage the team.

"But there were also lots of things we did very well, which you have to remember not to change."


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