x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Heroes of the homefront keep Volvo Ocean Race families sailing along

Some of the strongest people around sport will not be competing in the Volvo Ocean Race. They do, however, run households, forge decisions and oversee the care and feeding of children.

Ian Walker's job on Azzam is made easier with the knowledge that his wife, Lisa, has things well in hand at home.
Ian Walker's job on Azzam is made easier with the knowledge that his wife, Lisa, has things well in hand at home.

Some of the strongest people around sport do not compete.

They do, however, run households, forge decisions, make bank transfers, check boat updates and oversee the care and feeding of children.

They are the wives of Volvo Ocean Race sailors, and they resonate a deep competence amassed so steadily through the years that they probably don't recognise it in themselves. Their husbands go off for weeks and months in their race round the world, yet they not only withstand the distance but come to recognise its charms.

"Possibly part of the secret is you never get bored," said Lisa Walker, wife for 12 years of Ian Walker, the skipper of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team. "There's always something different. It's never monotonous."

As the team prepares for the start of the race on Friday, when they depart Alicante, Spain for the three-week trek to Cape Town, their families prepare for their absence. They will see each other sparingly over the next nine months; most wives will travel to four or five stopovers, while family concerns will limit some to fewer.

They meet in port after port in a roving society, and they met again last Saturday in a restaurant overlooking Alicante Bay, where the first in-port race resulted in Abu Dhabi victory. They held gadgets to their ears and checked updates ("Abu Dhabi leading by 160 meters," said Sue Slattery, wife of Justin Slattery) and threw in the occasional quip ("It's because of the navigator," said Cabrini Salter, wife of navigator Jules Salter).

As the race proceeded and the plates of food emptied, the assembly of children began chasing each other madly around the tables, generally ignoring the race except for when four-year-old Molly Slattery looked out at the boats and hollered: "Daddy!"

All the while the mothers sat unflappably, for these women pretty much define unflappability.

For one thing, they sprinkle their unusual marriages with contemplation.

"That's Justin, and I guess if Justin didn't do this, he wouldn't be Justin," said Sue Slattery, a television reporter on a child-rearing hiatus. "This is what makes him Justin."

For another thing, their marriages often feature wordless bonds.

As the mother of two young sons and a general practitioner in Isle of Wight, Dr Cabrini Salter typically stops at lunch and goes online to check her husband's boat speed. She might wake in the night and do the same.

"If I wake in the middle of an offshore leg and I know the speed is good, then I know he's fine," she said. "If the boat speed is similar to all the other competitors, I know all is well."

While Jules Salter circumnavigates the earth, Cabrini Salter doesn't bombard him with long emails or phone calls because, she said, "Really, Jules and I connect through the boat speed. ... It's really a common understanding. I know how he works, I know how the boat works, I know how the team works."

The whole equation might just owe to individual type.

"I think the secret is in a way being independent," Lisa Walker said, "because if you're someone that needs to be with your partner all the time, it's not going to work. It's having your own life, that meshes with your husband's life."

At the moment Lisa manages two young daughters, plus a yellow Labrador retriever, plus a house renovation near Southampton, England, plus checking the race updates every three hours.

"I know some women who can't send a bank transfer electronically," she said. "I don't say that derogatorily. It's just they've never had to do that. I sort of have to decide."

She knows that when her husband returns, after the race ends, there will be a readjustment phase. Ian Walker said that for a while last time he had spent so long just surviving that he would pour his own water without pouring for anyone else, hunch over while wolfing down food and earn "what on Earth are you doing" looks from Lisa.

The wives who have been through this before offer support to those who have not. Paula Satterthwaite met her husband Craig, the watch leader, when both sailed as teenagers in New Zealand. While she's too busy chasing daughter Gretel, two, to sail nowadays, her knowledge helps minimise the worry.

"Some other wives are always asking me questions, 'Why are they doing this? Why aren't they going the same way as everybody else?'" she said. "And sometimes I understand better what they're doing."

She also understands when he's "shaggy and hungry" coming into ports, so typically she greets him and then leaves him to work.

As an in-port race rages beyond the window in Alicante, the wives can teach familiar terminology such as "hole in the wind" (when a boat hits a dead pocket) and "rich get richer" (when a leading boat seems to gather even more wind), and they smile over an in-port win while knowing far too much to jump up and down.

Instead, on Saturday, they strode merrily over from the hotel to the Abu Dhabi pavilion where the victorious Azzam would appear, and as they walked, Sue Slattery said, "Some of these people, you won't have seen since the last race, but you know them really, really intimately. And then they go back to New Zealand or wherever."

As she spoke, her four-year-old daughter walked up ahead, having grabbed the hand of Cabrini Salter for the trip, an emblem of the connection within a group that qualifies as singular.


Follow The National Sport on @SprtNationalUAE & Chuck Culpepper on @DubaiChuck