x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Birth of a team: Abu Dhabi's vision sets sail

At a meeting in Stockholm, the seeds were sown that led to the emirate's racing team.

Members of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team carry a mainsail ahead of their training day in Alicante, Spain. The team put together comprises several nationalities, including two Emirati sailors.
Members of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team carry a mainsail ahead of their training day in Alicante, Spain. The team put together comprises several nationalities, including two Emirati sailors.

Like most sprawling projects, it began in many places. One was Stockholm, Sweden.

There in the spring of 2009, officials from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority met officials from the Volvo Ocean Race team Green Dragon, making the acquaintance that wound up creating this hubbub.

The Green Dragon had reached Stockholm, the ninth stopover of the 2008/09 race, bound for a commendable fifth-place finish with a constrained budget reported at €12 million (Dh60m), and the chief executive Jamie Boag and the skipper, Ian Walker, eyed their Volvo future with a caveat.

"We wanted to do this race again," Boag said, "but we didn't want to be the plucky underdogs. We sort of agreed within ourselves that we wanted to do this again but would stop trying if we couldn't get the money by a certain date."

Forge ahead to May 2010, to an ADTA boardroom with cups of coffee and five or six men including the authority's chairman, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon, Boag and Walker. The ADTA decided to sponsor a team, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, and had chosen Boag as its team director and Walker as the skipper.

Said Boag: "It's the vision of the ADTA, Sheikh Sultan, all the guys. This is their vision, and we're just helping them try to achieve it."

The team would choose Farr Yacht Design, of the United States, as their designer, given the Maryland-based company's sterling record in Volvo races. Farr designed the five boats that won the race - then held every four years - between 1985/86 and 2001/02.

Studying a new race course and what Patrick Shaughnessy, the Farr president, calls "a huge statistical weather model" showing 15 years of climate behaviour, Farr devised a fresh boat for a fresh set of conditions. Some saw it as radical, but Shaughnessy demurs, viewing the Camper boat, for one, as more radical.

Starting in autumn 2010, the Italian boatbuilding company, Persico, began making Farr's design materialise with the keen witness of those who would sail it. "We're navigating a path where we all feel ownership of it," Shaughnessy said. "When [the sailors] believe in it that's a strong team, and when they don't believe in it and question it, that's when you start to have the chinks."

Walker and Boag began choosing the crew that would sail Azzam, starting with a core of four announced in November 2010.

Three, they knew well. Jules Salter, a winner last time around as Ericsson 4 navigator, came as "obviously one of the best navigators in the world," Boag said. The Isle of Wight native also hailed from the America's Cup demi-monde but has observed … "The America's Cup is more like going to the office every day. The Volvo Ocean Race is something totally different, when you are racing at 30 knots in total darkness. It's both scary and fascinating."

Ireland's indefatigable bowman, Justin Slattery, also a mainstay around England's south coast, had been on Green Dragon and was known as a "systems guy" and "just a good bloke", Boag said. "We had done an around-the-world with Justin, so we knew how bloody good he was."

The bright and witty Simon Fisher, from Essex, specialises in electronics and had navigator experience in the Volvo Ocean Race. As a helmsman/trimmer, he personifies the concept of sailors having knowledge beyond their titles. The fourth, they knew by reputation. The Kiwi Craig Satterthwaite, veteran of three Volvos, got the prudent call for his "immense experience" but also his intricate knowledge of rigs and masts and all else.

"I think we knew who we wanted," Boag said. "Craig is not somebody that we knew or had a lot of experience with but we looked around and it's interesting because he's a real lieutenant. Very much a professional's professional."

And: "He eats broken glass for breakfast."

Walker knew the muscled English whizz Rob Greenhalgh, whose two Volvos sport a win and a runner-up, so by December he came on as watch captain, making six. Late in the game, around the spring of 2011, Satterthwaite dialled up fellow Kiwi Justin Ferris, second in two Volvo Ocean Races, and he came on as a helmsman/trimmer.

In between that, in the winter, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing conducted tryouts to fill the three mandated under-30 slots. They had welcomed 18 sailors and had whittled it down. That process brought the Australian bowman and boat captain, Wade Morgan, who said: "Out of the first five, I had sailed with four of them, everybody but Ian."

It also began the process by which the team would make the summertime addition of the American Andrew Lewis, who had sailed on the so-called "kids' team" of ABN Amro 2 in 2005/06. Adil Khalid, then just 22, emerged in January from the 120-some entries for the role of Emirati sailor, the announcement coming at Emirates Palace.

The media crew member Nick Dana, 25, and who cannot participate in sailing by Volvo Ocean Race rules, had his hopes for an under-30 sailing role sidetracked by a faulty knee from a surfing injury compounded by a quirky step-down onto a dock. His acquaintance with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing began through Ken Read, the skipper of the rival Puma.

"Kenny called me and said, 'Can you do this?'" Dana said. This meant readying a practice boat in Newport, Rhode Island, then bringing it to Baltimore, where it would go on a ship to Abu Dhabi.

"He came with the boat," Boag cracked. When the knee dashed sailing qualification, they learned he had photography and media experience, and, Boag said: "We kept him. It's been just great to be able to put him on the media role."

Then, for the role of reserve Emirati sailor, picture Butti Al Muhairi out in the Arabian Gulf, at work on an oil rig.

There, he became enthralled with the 2008/09 Volvo Ocean Race, following it so eagerly that if he learned the wind would change around the boats at 3am, he would set his alarm for 2.55am, wake up and follow the distant proceedings online.

When Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing announced it would select an Emirati sailor, he followed that, too, wondering if it would be someone he knew. When he tried the programme himself and impressed enough that he fielded a text even as he walked to his car from Khalid's selection at the Emirates Palace, asking him to come back for a meeting, his 27-year-old life took an unforeseeable turn.

"See how the life changes," he said.

"Today you are here, tomorrow you don't know where you are." As a reserve sailor but also a shore team helper, he said: "I'm ready to do everything. Just to be here and just to help the guys. These are really professional guys."

In that vein, Boag said: "It's funny, you know. Cups of coffee and a boardroom table turn into 40 people working and a nation following a boat around the world."

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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