x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Azzam out to avoid equator's 'doldrums'

Ian Walker says spirits aboard 'Azzam' are staying high because the crew know the Volvo Ocean Race will not be won or lost quickly and 'things have a habit of changing'.

Ian Walker, right, skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's 'Azzam', says the crew's morale is high even though they find themselves in a trailing position.
Ian Walker, right, skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's 'Azzam', says the crew's morale is high even though they find themselves in a trailing position.

The Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team may be bringing up the rear in the Volvo Ocean Race but Ian Walker, the skipper, is confident that their luck can change.

Speaking via satellite phone Wednesday aboard Azzam from 190 miles south of the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean, Walker pointed out how quickly things can change in a such a testing race.

"The next boat is 100 nautical miles away; it's quite a long way so it's not looking that rosy," he said. "But things have a habit of changing so we are just going to settle down and close it down as much as we can.

"It sounds a long way, but it's only six hours sailing. The thing about sailing is, if you sail into a patch with no wind you might not move again for five hours. So we'll never give up.

"We got stuck with no wind a couple of weeks ago; that can happen to someone else. Especially down in the doldrums."

The doldrums is a low-pressure area around the equator where the prevailing winds are very light. Boats can find their progress hindered if they take the wrong course through and could potentially be stranded for days.

Walker's team have fallen behind due to being held up by a cold front that slowed the race almost from the start, more than a week ago, of Leg 2.

"Fundamentally, our game plan involved getting through the front, which we haven't been able to do, whereas some of the other boats have sailed all the way south around and all the way around the front," Walker said.

Team Sanya, the Chinese entry, took a risk on Monday when they turned north, away from the rest of the boats, in a search of wind. The risk paid off initially, as they built a lead of more than 200 miles, before being forced to dock and pull out of the leg after suffering damage to their rigging.

Walker said that kind of gamble is something that might become an option later in the race.

"For sure, you are always measuring up risk against reward. If you're at the back, you've got to be prepared to take more risks than if you are at the front.

"We were leading as we got past South Africa … so we took a very conservative course" along with Telefonica and the Puma boat Mar Mostro. We actually saw [Team] Sanya pass behind us, a mile behind us, sailing north. It was an interesting play, sailing into an area of high winds, with considerable risk. I think as it played out it would have paid off but it's something they must have considered long and hard."

Morale is high aboard Azzam despite trailing the rest of the competitors, Walker said. "We were very frustrated at not being able to break through the front which would have given us a very strong position. Three times we almost made it but we didn't manage it, so we were very disappointed when we just got stuck.

"Since then we have been plugging away. Everyone has been in a situation like this and knows how quickly things can change.

"We are also buoyed by the fact we are making such good progress towards port after a really slow start to the leg."

With the boats likely to reach port - in an undisclosed location to negate the threat of piracy - around December 27 or 28, Christmas Day will be spent at sea.

"Its just another day we'll be at sea," said Walker. "I don't know if they have put anything special in our food bags but we'll have to postpone Christmas until we see our families on dry land."

The crew, but not the boat, will see out the New Year in Abu Dhabi.

"It's a bit of a funny leg as we have a bit of a wait while they ship the boat [to Abu Dhabi] because of the piracy concerns," Walker said. "We'll have five or six days where we have no boat to work on and nothing to do but relax. But, of course, as soon as the boat gets here we will be getting ready for the In-Port Race in Abu Dhabi.

"Right now the leg has not gone the way we hoped, but we are hoping we can turn things around in this leg and fuel some interest in Abu Dhabi."

Groupama leads the fleet, 85 nautical miles ahead of Puma.

twoods@thenational.ae