Sailing competitions are not just won in the water, but also by the work done on dry land. Chuck Culpepper meets the Shore Team.
Building a successful team from shore to shore
Having proved a dynamo in water, Azzam this week will segue into dryness, a state most uncommon for the ocean-going craft.
Her caretakers will greet the yacht's arrival on the Portuguese coast by giving it a welcome lift - out of water, with a crane - and a tireless refitting as Azzam will abide once more the expertise of one of the more unsung marvels in all of sport: the Shore Team.
Diligent, capable, creative and mighty, the Shore Team seemingly could deconstruct and reassemble the entire world, and apparently would do so willingly, without audience or plaudits.
"Everybody sees the 10 sailors," said Mike Danks, the technical shore manager for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. "It's more than the 10 sailors by a long, long way … The guy who sweeps the floor is just as important as the guy who steers the boat."
As Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's sailing crew savours their win in the monohull division of the Fastnet race and aim in earnest toward the Volvo Ocean Race, beginning on October 29, they will hand over the 70-foot Azzam to the Shore Team at the marina in Cascais.
A different bustle will ensue.
A tent village will reappear adjacent the water after the usual two to three days of assembly. Tools and machines will rev up until the place looks and sounds like some cross between a shop-class workshop and a Formula One garage. All-nighters will beset some, and anyone happening by the famous marina in the pretty resort town at midnight might see lights burning and hear gadgets grinding.
An array of hardware will materialise with such breadth that at one point Ian Walker, the skipper, pointed to an implement of some sort and joked, "I thought it might make a nice table lamp for me after the race". At some point, the sailing crew might take the Shore Team out gratefully for a thank you evening, as it did on the last Thursday of July.
And every sailor, if asked, or sometimes without being asked, will extol the crucial nature of the Shore Team.
"The guys on shore are just as important as the guy sailing the boat," Justin Slatter, the bowman, said. "All the preparation work we do now, it's 80 to 90 per cent of the battle. If you can prepare well and have a really nice shore structure, you increase your chances of making sure everything's right on the boat."
The Shore Team, said Walker - and here's that phrase again - "is just as important" as the celebrated crew, and it will spearhead the refitting and customising of Azzam for the rest of August until serious training resumes for the whole of September.
To read the list of Shore Team positions would be to get a sense of People Who Know How To Do Things and People You Might Like To Have Around The House. There's an engineer, an electrician, a winch guy, two riggers, two sail makers, three boat builders …
"He looks after all the winches," Walker said as he nodded toward an industrious Sam Bourne. "Every stopover, he'll have to strip all the winches down."
Standing amid the din of the tent, Walker said: "It's sort of interesting, in a sense. We come off the boat, we say we're going to need some foot chocks, and these guys have to make it happen." He then held a foot chock in his hands and said: "Clever stuff, carbon fibre."
Farther across the task spectrum, there's a diver who plunges beneath the boat on each of its wet mornings, and his mission spawns another consideration.
"Every day he goes in and gives it a clean," Danks said. "In Cape Town [the first stopover during the nine-month Volvo race] we might get someone else, because there are big seals down there. They come up behind you and scare the [heck] out of you."
As well, the Shore Team boasts the reserve sailor of the two selected Emiratis, Butti Al Muhairi, a 27-year-old oil and gas platform operator with a 70-year family history of dhow sailors.
An indefatigable soul who hopped on board for the sail to London for the Fastnet race when the primary crew member, Adil Khalid, returned briefly to the UAE to visit family and his newborn son, Al Muhairi sustained his customary constant motion on the Saturday morning of departure for England, repairing a bunk among other chores.
"The boys love him," said Sarah Burney, in the physio tent. "He's so helpful and so interested and so keen. He's great. A really happy, helpful guy."
On he churns, she said, even given his enthusiasm for the gym plus his dual role on teams wet and dry, a combination all sailors perform to considerable degree in this churning culture.
In a befuddling bevy of areas, the Shore Team must specialise in some of the most specialised things imaginable, right down to "all the fibres in the sail," Walker said in reference to the sail makers. "You've got to make a decision, how much fibre. You want to make the sails as light as possible, but if you make them too light, they break. You've got to think of it as the engine."
The Shore Team must make its own everything, even their own rope because, as the leader, Danks, said: "They chafe. Basically you can count the hours till it runs out. The load on them is horrific."
The Shore Team must continue refining things right down to that toilet because, as Danks put it, "It's just too dangerous" to go "off the back of the boat, 'cause there's so much water" and "you're going to be off the boat in a hurry with the amount of water going by".
All the preparations for any elite sailboat would daunt a novice, but for a boat about to embark on a nine-month, 39,000-nautical-mile, six-continent, three-ocean jaunt, take all those considerations and multiply. As the Australian bowman, Wade Morgan, explained, "We're asking a lot out of the boat just the first 25 days" from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town. "Most races - Fastnet, Sydney Harbour - they're two days. So it's like we're doing 10 of those back-to-back."
That makes the whole enterprise amount to "a small, boatbuilding company that we're running," Danks said, "all customising and refining," during which, "It can be a day's work just to get the mast of the boat out."
Indeed, Slattery said, the Shore Team and the double-tasking sailors themselves surely could "strip down everything on the boat and rebuild it" if necessary.
Danks said: "Keeping the place alive with all your stuff, all your materials, is one of your constant battles. Purchasing, and keeping on top of it. Guys go through so much stuff. There's a balancing act of having enough and keeping inside the budget."
The Shore Team also must demonstrate fiscal prudence.
They also must be adaptive as they face an unusual stop-start schedule. There are the especially intensive periods such as the one in July after Azzam sailed from Italy around Spain to Portugal, and the one coming this week. There are the intensive days when the crew take Azzam into the quickly challenging waters for testing and, as Danks said: "The boat goes out yachting and the guys stand here and build parts."
There are the moving periods, as when the Shore Team loaded up a van that would proceed to the northern coast of Spain, catch a ferry to the southern coast of England, and unload there for the Cowes boat week and the Fastnet. And then, during races, there are trips home, and even that aspect can sound challenging.
Danks, for instance, is a New Zealander who resides in Rhode Island in the US, has worked for various teams through the years and has become one of the airlines' favourite people ever. In 2010 alone, going back and forth between harbours and home during races, he logged 210,000 air miles.
Transatlantic flights: 19. A personal record!
Walker said: "Whenever the boat goes out at sea, they get a window of calm, if you like."
Such a calm - before a flurry - held sway as of yesterday morning, as Azzam moved toward Portugal and her refit while Walker blogged "from about 40 miles off Cape Finisterre" at "the north-west tip of Spain".
Updating, he wrote: "We have had a lovely run down from Plymouth [in England] and are currently enjoying about 22 knots of northerly wind. Jules is up on deck steering as we tick off the miles quickly," a reference to the navigator Jules Salter. "It has been a useful trip in terms of gathering much-needed downwind data. We have our sail designer, Jeremy Elliott, on board, and he has been checking out all our latest downwind sails."
He wrote they had conversed often of the plight that befell Rambler, the US-sponsored boat that capsized off the coast of Ireland in the Fastnet, and of "how fortunate all our friends were to survive" after the multifaceted rescue of 26. Walker wrote that next week, the Azzam crew will take a sea survival course.
And while summarising the bustling seven weeks since the launching of Azzam as "a very good start," he forecasted an arrival and "a comfy bed" within two days at Cascais.
There will await the Shore Team, a long way from famous but a long way from unappreciated.