x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Decision to split from fleet key to victory for Azzam

Skipper Ian Walker pleased with bold strategy as Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team win In-Port Race

Adil Khalid raises the national flag after Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew finish first the In-Port Race on Friday.
Adil Khalid raises the national flag after Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew finish first the In-Port Race on Friday.

Off they went, five audacious sailboats, and for a spell on Friday Abu Dhabi's Azzam went almost forgotten, an outlier on the distant left of the course of the Etihad Airways In-Port Race.

Action graced the other end of the starting line as the French entry Groupama and the Spanish-Kiwi boat Camper churned half-precariously through teeming spectator boats.

Within downwind moments, though, it grew clear Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing had something, and its plan devised through the week and confirmed three minutes before the outset soon shone. It roared to the first marker first, benefited from a penalty against its closest neighbour Puma and manhandled the race in its hometown stopover.

"Bold strategy," skipper Ian Walker said. "Bold start. Splitting from the fleet. Starting behind everybody. That showed confidence as well. Very tidy boat-handling. Good crew work. And I think the boat's fast in this stuff."

When the final gun came and Walker fist-pumped and Abu Dhabi had led since overtaking Groupama along the second run, Azzam had finished in 57 minutes, 51 seconds, 57 seconds ahead of second-place Groupama, 2:56 ahead of Camper With Emirates Team New Zealand, 4:31 ahead of the American bid Puma and 4:56 ahead of Spanish entry Telefonica, the overall leader.

Telefonica's two points took it to 68 overall as the boats begin Leg 3 on Saturday, while Camper took four points to reach 62, Groupama got five to hit 47, Puma took three for 31 and Abu Dhabi hoarded six to get to 25. Team Sanya, the sixth entry in the round-the-world, nine-leg, 10-stopover race, missed the In-Port Race because rigging issues deterred it to Madagascar during Leg 2.

"You know, we knew from the start it wasn't going to be about boat speed," said Abu Dhabi watch leader Rob Greenhalgh, whose fortes include the boat-handling demanded in In-Port Races. "It was going to be about strategy, tactics, planning and boat handling."

As explained Jules Salter, Azzam's navigator and the winning navigator in the previous Volvo Ocean Race, "On the downwind stage you're trying to start in the most breeze." Venturing alone wound up freeing Azzam from any "dirty air," the phenomenon when clustered boats wind up disturbing each other's wind.

"Packs of boats generally travel more slowly," Greenhalgh said. "We got out, got some air . . ."

It also saved them one jibe toward the first marker, Salter said, and, as bowman Justin Slattery said, "Once you get your bow ahead on the first mark, in these conditions you're in a pretty powerful position."

Walker described his team as "prepared to take some risks," and bowman Wade Morgan called the "calculated decision" bold-"ish."

Puma came closest along the starting line and actually led straightaway, but soon found itself in a penalty U-turn and a lather, flagged for a port-and-starboard infringement against Telefonica that prompted Puma skipper Ken Read to note a contrast between the viewpoints of Puma and the umpires.

"We rolled over the top of Telefonica with the spinnakers up just after the start and went into a jibe three lengths ahead of them," Read said. "As we were jibing, they did a big turn down to try and prevent us from jibing. When they realised they can't get down to us, they turned back up aggressively, clearly trying to fake out the umpires who were well out of position to make an accurate assessment of the distance between the boats. Sure enough they got the call."

From there, Azzam faced one snag. It briefly trailed the fast-improving Groupama between the first and second markers while craving breeze over on the right. It ducked under Groupama from the latter's port side, emerged on the right and regathered its lead.

Azzam preened from there for its second win in three in-port races, leading by 43 seconds after the second mark, down to 28 after the fourth and back up to more than a minute after the sixth. "We had one shot today, it was as simple as that," an elated Walker said. They took it out there alone on the left.

cculpepper@thenational.ae


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