x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Grand design of Azzam has fallen short in the Volvo Ocean Race

From a broken mast to a delaminating hull, the around-the-world event has chewed up and spat out the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team's sleek boat.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing have discovered that their sleek black boat, Azzam, is fast in light winds but struggles mightily in upwind or
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing have discovered that their sleek black boat, Azzam, is fast in light winds but struggles mightily in upwind or "reaching" conditions.

Hair had rebelled to run amok over his face and neck. He seemed to dwell in some uncharted frontier of exhaustion. And as the Azzam skipper Ian Walker gazed off into a New Zealand marina on a grey Sunday last month, he seemed to stare into nothing at all as he gave a sorrowful summary of the Volvo Ocean Race itself.

"I cannot tell you how hard it is," he said. "… brutal."

For one thing, how prescient.

The harrowing Leg 5 from Auckland to Itajai, Brazil, wound down with broken boats strewn around until only two of six entries vied for victory.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's delaminated hull had wrought both its retirement from a second leg and its second shipping of its sleek, black yacht, this time from the Chilean coast around Cape Horn and upward to Brazil.

For another thing, how succinct.

By that drizzly Sunday, the Abu Dhabi crew had completed a psychological adjustment. Languishing 58 points from the lead and 25 points from fourth place, they had made the hard separation with the idea of winning the nine-month, 39,270-nautical-mile slog.

In the nonsense-free words of the watch leader and man's-man Rob Greenhalgh, "We're not going to turn this thing around and win this race, but hopefully we can start winning some legs."

Why had Azzam run precisely fifth in all the ocean legs it completed?

The reasons mingled with the Auckland chatter and included the word "upwind", the cooing over the boats from another designer, the spiteful residue of Abu Dhabi's Leg 1 dismasting and retirement and even those precocious little Solomon Islands. The reasons did not deter the crew from Leg 5 downwind optimism as Anthony Nossiter, the Australian Olympian, replaced the Kiwi helmsman-trimmer Justin Ferris for the duration.

"Oh, it's pretty simple, really," said Craig Satterthwaite, Azzam's most experienced Volvo sailor. "We've struggled with the upwind. We're slow in upwind. That's why we're really looking forward to this leg."

He pronounced himself "absolutely sick of" upwind sailing.

"I think we've been a touch off the pace upwind and in tight reaching, and that's been 80 per cent of the race so far," Walker said. "And that makes it really hard, because that means you have to get everything else almost perfect. It hasn't given us a platform to be able to work from. There's so much stuff that we do very well, and I think we have shown that in the in-port races," of which Abu Dhabi has won two of five, plus a semi-in-port win in the Abu Dhabi-to-Sharjah stage of Leg 3.

Jules Salter, the widely respected navigator who won the 2008/09 Volvo Ocean Race aboard Ericsson 4, said: "We're lacking a bit of speed, which cuts down your options a bit. We're still getting better, but not quickly enough."

Said Patrick Shaughnessy, the president of the American designer Farr Yacht Design: "As a design team, we were specifically asked by our sailing team to create a strength for the boat in light-wind sailing, which pulls the boat a bit away from what otherwise might be a pure race-model emphasis.

"In order to accomplish the light-wind supremacy, we traded away stability from our hull concept. That loss of stability has, in turn, produced a weakness in upwind sailing and close reaching," while the design process forged "a good area of strength in downwind sailing."

He spoke from a company that designed the top winners in the races of 1989/90, 1993/94, 1997/98 and 2001/02, before a contender arrived in the form of Juan Kouyoumdjian, the Spain-based Argentinian whose boats won the last two editions and have stayed hot this time, lending more cachet towards "Juan K", as it goes in common sailing parlance.

In the ceaseless, campaign-to-campaign drive for design advancement, the three "Juan K" entries - Spain's Telefonica, France's Groupama and the US's Puma - have flourished even as Puma's fourth-place owes to a dismasting and retirement amid the Atlantic during Leg 1.

"We can't keep up with the 'Juan K' boats at the crucial points," said Walker.

In one sideways bow to "Juan K", the Emirates Team New Zealand manager Grant Dalton, himself a five-time sailor in the race and a principal in the Camper With Emirates Team New Zealand entry, told the Sunday Star-Times of New Zealand: "There is absolutely no doubt that at certain angles we are slow relative to these other three 'Juan K' boats."

Dalton gruffly set that deficit "100 per cent at the feet of the designer", the Spaniard, Marcelino Botin, and said, "It's there for him to see and me to see, and I just guess we aren't going to be building any boats together again."

No such clamour has beset Farr, and the temporary Azzam offices at stopovers often have featured Shaughnessy, at a laptop, analysing numbers toward maximising performance.

"Juan Kouyoumdjian has designed some very nice boats," Shaughnessy wrote in an email.

"I think you can say that these teams, not just their boats, are the class of the race. The teams have several advantages - like early funding and sailing-team continuity - that they have built on very nicely. Because the three teams participated in a shared pool of research, the design group was able to work with a substantially larger budget for a much longer duration than we were able to do for the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team."

Said Greenhalgh: "In any of these big ocean races, boat design is king. And speed is king. And we've been well off the eight-ball with boat design," with the reasons he cited matching Shaughnessy's. "You make your bed very early on and the race is just about getting into it and sleeping in it."

He said: "Right now we haven't got a strong spot. Puma's a bit of an all-round, but that's why she hasn't won races" while building points off podium finishes. "To win a leg, you're going to have to be very good at something. You can't be average, because someone will beat you."

He also said: "Out of Alicante" the very first night last November, "before the mast broke, we realised we had a problem. We saw that Groupama," for one example, "was very fast."

After they saw that, they came down off a fateful wave inferior to many they have faced since, and they saw their nine-month race distorted for good. They returned by motor to Spain with the disintegrated mast. Across four gruelling days, they installed the spare mast and departed on a Wednesday evening, but by the weekend had retired from the leg.

That meant zero points for the first ocean leg, but it also meant something meaningful in Salter's vein of better-but-not-quickly-enough.

"And, I don't know, it just takes time, and we missed Leg 1, and the others are learning," Salter said.

"Dismasting in Leg 1 removed the opportunity to sail for an extended period of time, not just on our boat, but also in close vicinity to the other boats," Shaughnessy wrote. "We didn't learn about our own boat and we didn't learn about their boats. We didn't sail the leg the boat was specifically targeted at, concept-wise. Sort of a lose-lose situation."

The dismasting and retirement "eroded the team's confidence", he wrote, and when it seemed the repair and restart might refurbish some hope, "Ultimately that new fledgling confidence was squandered as well by the decision to abandon. And sadly, when you fail to sail a leg where you have a strength, you know the remaining race just got harder."

Leg 2 saw Azzam stream out to an early lead from Cape Town, then get stuck in stillness with the fleet as the weather proved unconventional for all. Leg 3 from the Maldives to China was largely upwind and always foreboding. Shaughnessy thought Leg 4 showed improvements, but the bowman Wade Morgan described how it produced new frustration.

Approaching the Solomon Islands with all the entries in contention, Abu Dhabi aimed eastward to curl around the archipelago. It was not as fast as the accompanying Groupama, but it craved a podium spot because contenders Telefonica and Camper had to slice directly through the islands and some shallow waters. The Puma skipper Ken Read, out east himself, blogged about the possibility of "wind shadows" amid the islands, and Azzam sailors checked reports to see if Telefonica and Camper might get stuck.

Through subsequent reports came a depressing upshot.

There came a moment, Morgan said, of, "No, they're doing miles again. They're out of it. They're gone."

Read called it "about as net-even as two radically different approaches could be".

And the feeling? "Disappointing, shall we say," Morgan said.

Still, after limping into Auckland looking dour, the team eyeballed Leg 5 in the vaunted Southern Ocean for its downwind promise that could uncloak Azzam's might.

They made off in the drizzle, and by 10pm New Zealand time that night, one Sunday after Walker's glum summary, they had announced plans to turn around for another night of repairs because a bulkhead in the bow had ripped "clean out", as the media crew member Nick Dana reported.

Dana called the crew "absolutely gutted", a feeling they have come to know.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae

 

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