x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

'Consistency' will be the key for Volvo Ocean Race teams

Emotional scenes as six 'similar' boats head off from Alicante for the first leg to Cape Town.

Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper, works on the lines at the bow as Azzam sets sail from Alicante to Cape Town.
Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper, works on the lines at the bow as Azzam sets sail from Alicante to Cape Town.

ALICANTE, SPAIN // As six hotshot sailboats on a gray Saturday midday peeled off one-by-one toward the great unknown, they also promised the greatest amount of unknown in Volvo Ocean Race history.

By all accounts from sailing scholars, this 11th round-the-world slog marks a departure from predecessors in that even the sages cannot peg an obvious winner or two from the mix, lending an air of enticement as Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam had the early race leader's honour of edging out last.

The Leg 1 to South Africa and the churn to next July should be contentious "for sure", said Brad Jackson, a Puma watch leader on his sixth turn at this.

"I think the boats are all very well-prepared, very well-campaigned teams, and that hasn't always been the case in the past," he said.

"The teams all have equal amounts of money and resources to develop the boats and the people. And, people-wise, guys who have done well in the race previously are pretty much spread throughout the fleet.

"It's definitely going to be harder than ever to win and it's going to be about being consistent and trying to be top-three at times."

Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi skipper, saw "six very, very similar boats," signalling "maybe more pressure than ever on the navigators and skippers to make the right decisions and never more so than how the weather's shaping up on this first leg".

Those navigators, skippers, 11-man crews, wives and children gathered on the docks for a brief ceremony and 66 farewells, the forecast promising a Mediterranean night of hardship. The public address blared, crowds bunched in to gawk and bluster whipped the palm trees. Azzam boasted two extra flags, a green one noting the "In-Port Race Winner" and an orange one noting "Overall Leader", with six early points.

Butti Al Muhairi spread well-wishes. The reserve Emirati sailor and Shore Team member hopped on to the boat to hug Nick Dana, the American who will record the journey as the mandatory media crew member.

For a long moment after that, Al Muhairi stood encouraging the onboard Adil Khalid, telling him not to worry, to look at the UAE flag when he felt weary.

"It's difficult to see the boat leaving," Al Muhairi said. "I don't know what to say. I don't think anyone was talking when they leave. Everyone was quiet."

Sue Law, the mother of the Azzam sailor Simon Fisher, said: "I'm not allowed to cry." An experienced sailor herself, she said that "SiFi", as everyone calls her son, is "so laid-back that he's not anxious. He's just excited to be out there".

Azzam motored off toward the choppy harbour as Al Muhairi touched the last bits of railing on the craft that has extracted so much of his sweat as well as that of the Shore Team and the sailors.

The yacht with the falcon-emblem spinnaker joined the five rivals bunched in the harbour for an initial back-and-forth designed for spectators, who massed along the seawall and upon jut-out rocks.

With the 6,500-mile Leg 1 under way, the chatter about the leg's meaning mirrored the sense of welcome uncertainty about the outcome.

Traditionally, the first to Cape Town wins the race, as in 2008/09 with Ericsson4 with both Azzam navigator Jules Salter and Jackson aboard.

"In previous races, it set quite a precedent for the rest of the race," Jackson said.

"Saying that, I don't think it's going to be quite as big a deal for this race. There are going to be lots of boats winning legs this time."

Mike Sanderson, the Team Sanya skipper, said: "The winner of the first leg might not be the winner, for the first time … and this is the first time ever you haven't been able to whittle it down to two boats if you were honest with yourself."

The Telefonica skipper Iker Martinez craved only a top-three finish in Cape Town, while Walker agreed but thought a distant third might daunt. "Your biggest concern is that the rest of the table are faster than you," Walker said. "I can tell you it's a pretty miserable nine months if they are."

Amid the doubt, the Camper skipper Chris Nicholson liked Telefonica and Puma in addition to his own contender, and said also, "I just look at Abu Dhabi and you just know that at certain angles and certain points of style, they're going to be very quick."

With possibilities aplenty, all six boats, with Azzam fourth on the surge out to sea, slipped off the horizon.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae

 

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