x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Azzam to complete testing waters for Volvo Ocean Race

Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi team captain, says that first 10 seconds could a 'deciding factor' in final in-port practice race.

The Azzam will set sail on a 62,674km race, across six continents and three oceans.
The Azzam will set sail on a 62,674km race, across six continents and three oceans.

ALICANTE, Spain // In a stirring scene yesterday afternoon in the Mediterranean waters just off Alicante, the six vivid sailboats of the Volvo Ocean Race zigzagged past each other serially, indicating two realities.

For one, they had to wait a bit for the eight to 10 knots of breeze that would govern their final in-port practice race, and for another, the momentous start date of October 29 finally has turned up after months and years of glowing distantly upon the calendar.

"Today was great to be sailing all together, no?" Iker Martinez, the Spanish Telefonica skipper, said.

They will sail all together again today - Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam and five rivals - for the gargantuan race that will course through 62,764km, six continents, three oceans and 10 stopovers. And while this first in-port race will not bring the gruel for which the race is known, the organisers do give points for it - six to the winner and five to the runner-up, carrying on down to one to the last.

By contrast, that gruel - the offshore legs that test elite crews to the limit, bring 30 points to the winner and 25 to the runner-up on down to five for the trailer.

"I think these boats are made to go out in the ocean, and honestly, we are all nursing these things around the course on a day like today, trying to get around in one piece," said Ken Read, the American Puma skipper, second in the previous race in 2008/09. "It's hard. This is not what these boats were made for."

With that, Read supplied a bit of history, noting that the dominant champion ABN Amro boat of two editions ago, in 2005/06, finished last in the first in-port race, while the decisive champion Ericsson 4 of last time around finished fourth out of seven.

"So I don't think it determines the winner, but of course anytime people like this group [of skippers] and the entire group of sailors get on a starting line, they're going to compete as hard as humanly possible."

They did just that yesterday, the crews churning as if it counted in the practice race that saw Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing finish second behind the Emirates Team New Zealand entry Camper. The Camper team's wise early choices in the thrice-up, thrice-back course that took them to victory owed as much to luck as strategy, according to its Australian skipper, Chris Nicholson.

"Very shifty" winds, Abu Dhabi skipper, Ian Walker said, "could mean that it's all in the first 10 seconds of the race and who gets the best start, or, as we saw today, it's a lot of potential for boat-handling, mistakes and wind shifts to change it all around.

"Normally I'm quite good at predicting what's going to happen in a race, but I think tomorrow none of us really knows what's going to be a deciding factor. It's probably going to be a fun day."

Walker's analysis also seems to cover the entirety of the event, widely considered the most tightly competitive in the 11-race, 38-year-old competition. Five of the six boats are new, with only the Chinese entry, Team Sanya, bringing an "old-generation" boat, as noted its accomplished skipper, Mike Sanderson, a champion five years ago as the ABN Amro skipper.

As Simon Fisher, the helmsman/trimmer of the Abu Dhabi team, said: "Everyone's a one-boat team, there's not a two-boat team," nor is there the clear, consensus idea of a winner that often congeals.

Suspense, then, appears today, but builds more to the offshore outset one Saturday hence, when the 10,500-km trek to Cape Town begins.

As Nicholson put it after all the months of boat-building and preparation and decision-making, "It's actually nice now to get down to the business end and go racing."

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae

Meet the two Emirati sailors that are part of the crew of Azzam, s4-5

 

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