x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'First gauge' for Abu Dhabi team before the big Volvo challenge

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Team head to Isle of Wight for a Fastnet race, part of their preparations for the nine-month race.

The crew are sailing Azzam to England to take part in a Fastnet race.
The crew are sailing Azzam to England to take part in a Fastnet race.

CASCAIS, PORTUGAL // Away went Azzam at midday on Saturday, fading into a dot upon the Atlantic Ocean, bound for the next rung of her orientation.

As the shore and onboard staff dismantled the tent camp they will rebuild in September here in this picturesque resort, the 70-foot yacht with the Abu Dhabi insignias initiated the seven-day trek to England.

There, Azzam will compete in the Fastnet race in mid-August as a way of measuring her progress toward the nine-month-long Volvo Ocean Race beginning October 29.

A van of supplies sat loaded and ready to roll to Spain for the ferry to Isle of Wight in England to meet the 70-foot yacht at Cowes. In a swirl of late-morning industry, crew and shore-team members hauled necessities onto the boat.

Ian Walker, the captain, remembered his flip-flops in case of, say, any unexpected stops for repairs.

"Just doing a race raises the level of all of it," Walker said, branding this "our first gauge, really".

Introduced on July 5 at Portofino, Italy, Azzam began with a two-week test trek past Spain and around Gibraltar to the Portuguese coast. In the sailing-happy resort town of Cascais, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team have found a setting that wreaks swooning.

"You go out from here, it's glassy for the next mile and then ..." the Australian bowman Wade Morgan said.

And then, within a mere 15 minutes, you are in the Atlantic with all its welcome challenges.

On a sheet of paper, Walker drew a makeshift map of the area, noting the high pressure over the Azores out in the ocean, the summertime low pressure over Spain and the testing conditions those two forces orchestrate.

Favourable reviews of the main preparatory setting and the boat come with a repeated refrain which Morgan worded as: "Always hard to know until you line up against other boats."

Regarding Azzam herself, the Irish bowman, Justin Slattery, said: "Pretty impressed with the boat so far. It's showing all the right signs. Going in the right direction. Clearly a lot of work to do."

Walker noted the late start of the team relative to other teams, pegged that lateness as "nothing dramatic", stressed the maximum use of each day and said of Azzam, "I'd say it feels stiffer and stronger than I envisaged. Certainly, stronger than any other Volvo entry I've sailed. The boat's really well-mannered, but that doesn't mean it's fast."

For that latter question, the 608-nautical-mile Fastnet from Isle of Wight past the south-west coast of Ireland and back to Plymouth features 300 competitors. "That'll be a huge judgement when we get out there," Morgan said. "We'll know really quickly where we're at."

In the meantime, he said, the contestants for the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race wonder about each other from afar, Morgan said. "You're looking for as many photos as possible online", even though it's not "as bad as the America's Cup because you're not all together.

"You can't just go and see, and if you see someone's got something freaky on there, you can't just go copy it."

Praise from the captain came for Azzam's two, young Emirati sailors chosen for the mission, the 22-year-old crew member Adil Khalid and the 27-year-old reserve and shore-team member, Butti Al Muhairi.

Of Khalid, Walker said: "He's really raised his game. I think leaving Abu Dhabi has been the making of Adil. It's always hard to train at home. I found that when I trained in England. You're never as productive as when you're training in Spain or somewhere else. He's come on leaps and bounds, actually."

The late-spring phase Khalid and Al Muhairi spent in spiteful waters around England clearly helped. "A lot of the guys on the rest of the team are getting to trust them," Walker said. "Remember, everybody else is the best in the world. ... They're starting to be part of the team, whether it's sharing a job or telling a story."

Sometimes, from his office window, Walker can hear teammates "taking the mickey out of" the popular Al Muhairi, which Walker finds encouraging.

For the trek to England, Walker gave Khalid time with his family and newborn son back in the UAE, and brought Al Muhairi into the onboard crew. "And they're getting stronger," Walker said of the training. "You've probably noticed it yourself. Butti's put on five kilos with no gain in the body fat."

All told, Walker said: "It's going well; it's going really well," and it goes off to England where, he said: "It'll be nice to be there with a wicked, huge, cool boat, promoting our sponsor in the marketplace."

cculpepper@thenational.ae