x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Azzam crew caught up in a whirlwind of emotions

Rewarded, vindicated, relieved, shocked and definitely joyous. Chuck Culpepper tries to comprehend what the victorious Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team must be feeling after Leg 7. Audio interviews with Adil Khalid and Ian Walker

Victory in Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race came as a 'massive relief' to the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew. Rafael Marchante / Reuters
Victory in Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race came as a 'massive relief' to the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew. Rafael Marchante / Reuters

Did anybody mention reward? Don't omit reward. An 11-man crew so often beleaguered through seven months sailing around the planet finally found humongous reward.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing won the onerous Atlantic Ocean leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. Skipper Ian Walker called it "one of the most amazing experiences of my sailing career." Emirati sailor Adil Khalid called it "a great day for Abu Dhabi." Media crew member Nick Dana said, "We've needed this for a while."

On June 1 at 1.23:54 am in Abu Dhabi and on May 31 at 10.23:54pm in Portugal, the broken mast and the broken hull and the broken dreams and the broken morale finally yielded to something delectable. By almost 2am in Abu Dhabi and almost 11pm, in Portugal, Azzam reached the dock merrily in Lisbon, Khalid lifting the UAE flag from the bow.

By a margin of six minutes after 3,590 nautical miles, this seasoned bunch in a debut campaign had a first leg win.

Eleven sailors, three previous Volvo winners, got themselves a hard-won moment. They got themselves 30 of the sweeter points yet attained from an outdistanced, fifth-place overall position. They got the embodiment of what Walker said two weeks ago, before they left their moribund Miami: "You have to hold your head up and try your best and hopefully get a break and it will be all the more meaningful to us."

So while sifting through the teeming pot of themes that mark this team's best moment, and while watching Walker on Volvo Ocean Race video pumping both fists in the air upon arrival in Lisbon, make sure to include reward.

And don't forget vindication. These professionals unaccustomed to sound defeat probably could have used a reminder of their skill at something so uncommonly hard. Most people, after all, cross the Atlantic while watching movies on a jet. Three in-port race wins had cemented them as a tactical match for the four leading boats, but 3,590 nautical miles across the moody Atlantic chased for five closing days by four faster boats, well, that shouted their prowess.

The race surely had been hard on Jules Salter, the defending-champion navigator, even if you couldn't spot the woe through his legendary equanimity. Now came a leg in which everyone knew of Abu Dhabi's speed disadvantages and yet, mid-ocean, Walker wound up crediting Salter for expert reading of the Gulf Stream puzzle. As Azzam surged ahead on May 26, it looked like one of the little victories Salter said you try and get for yourself when your fast boat isn't as fast as the others. Hold them off for a while, you feel worthy, Salter said in Miami.

Hold them off all ocean, as all 11 guys proceeded to do through the harrowing final days and hours, all the way to the welcome fireworks, and you feel ...

Don't leave out vindication.

Still, find room for relief.

At one point in the lead-eroding wee hours of Thursday, the speedy French entry Groupama 4 lurked a fraction of a nautical mile from Azzam, according to the race website. Just two quivery hours from the finish, this update came from Dana: "Groupama just spotted off our starboard beam. Two-plus miles behind."

That pretty green boat must have looked pretty scary.

After days of leading through the Atlantic, a last-hours pipping in the Tagus River would have been devastating, but here came Dana's next sentence: "Everyone is extremely fired up right now."

So they fought through however athletes fight through, and they manoeuvered to hold off the new overall race leaders, and here came relief, from an exhausted Walker: "Do you think you could make the last 10 miles of a race any harder than that?"

And: "It's a massive relief."

And it's also a shock. Don't overlook shock. In sport, we always love shock.

When it left Miami on May 20, the team had just finished digesting the ultimate bummer from Leg 6 between Brazil and Miami: It had no conceivable advantage. The fading hope about downwind advantage had finished fading. Telefonica had zoomed on by tellingly. Sailors would wake one morning to see a rival and the next morning to find that rival unseeable up ahead.

An ambitious campaign had finished fifth in all four legs it had completed.

And right after that moment, this? Really? Here came one of those whiplash moments only sport can produce.

Here came a finish so flush with themes that it's a chore to extract all of them for identification. Just look at the faces from the photographs and videos from Lisbon, and ...

Wait. Has anybody mentioned joy?

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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