x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

How Azzam rode out a storm

Abu Dhabi sailors explain to ChuckCulpepper what an ordeal Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race proved to be.

The trip from South Africa to the UAE had pushed the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew to the limit, prompting one of the members to describe sailing as a ‘soul-destroying’ sport that was tougher on the mind that on the body.
The trip from South Africa to the UAE had pushed the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew to the limit, prompting one of the members to describe sailing as a ‘soul-destroying’ sport that was tougher on the mind that on the body.

"They're big, fat things."

In a scenario the learned sailor Craig Satterthwaite called "really, really weird", Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing charged first out of Cape Town on December 11 and on through the Atlantic night and into the first morning and smack into extreme stillness.

Ask the Azzam watch leader for a foremost memory from Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race, and he will say: "Parked off the Cape of Good Hope."

There they sat, right off South Africa, "bobbing up and down looking at the notorious Cape of Good Hope for about 10 hours" in the skipper Ian Walker's words, 11 guys with unparalleled dislike for bobbing up and down.

"We have made pretty good friends with one rock in particular, that has been less than half a mile down swell from us for two hours," Walker said then.

As the weather forecasts disintegrated, some trailing rivals, noticing Abu Dhabi's slackened boat speed, reassessed and went elsewhere.

After a while, Satterthwaite said: "They had slid over the horizon. And then, Telefonica" - the eventual leg winner - "was eight miles behind us, and they were anchored, to avoid being washed up in the surf."

What to do in this gorgeous morass? "You're still concentrating," Satterthwaite said, "because you don't know what winds are coming. And you're trying not to get washed into the rock."

For one thing, you sleep when you can, so Satterthwaite went down below for four hours, assessing the bunks as "really good on this boat," describing them as "really, really comfortable", pegging them as winners in the sport's all-time bunk-building bonanza.

For another thing, seals. Hundreds of seals. Maybe thousands of seals. No visible sharks even in a known shark ghetto, but seals. "Most of the time, they're sunbathing on the surface of the water," Satterthwaite said. "Yeah, they're lazy. They're big, fat things."

"Maybe it's just someone calling Batman on another ship."

On Christmas night amid the Indian Ocean, the bowman/boat captain Wade Morgan and the helmsman/trimmer Simon Fisher speculated as to that alluring but mysterious shaft of light in the southern sky.

"It looked like a big searchlight," Morgan said. "It looked like something out of a nightclub."

Even with Fisher's scientific acumen, they began to wonder about Batman.

"Someone's calling for Batman," Morgan said. "It's true. It looked like the Batman searchlight."

It stayed and stayed. Ultimately, they thought it must emanate from some distant oil rig.

Within days, the studious Fisher had the answer.

He had been reading the blog of Brian Thompson, among the 14-man crew on the Maxi Trimaran Banque Populaire V, chasing the round-the-world circumnavigation speed record for the Jules Verne Trophy.

Thompson wrote from almost halfway around the world, from the vicinity of Brazil.

"There was the most bizarre light in the sky in the night before last, Christmas Day night," he wrote.

"It was like one of those searchlights outside a nightclub, shining up to the sky from the south. It went from the horizon vertically up to about 25/30 degrees, so not as high as those searchlights, but that same kind of narrow, white beam."

He called it "really odd". One crew member speculated it might be an "alien staircase".

Thompson wrote: "The only thing that could be agreed upon is that nobody, in all their miles at sea, had seen anything like it before."

Thompson guessed comet and guessed well. The comet Lovejoy and its considerable tail had amazed experts by withstanding close passage to the sun to supply an enviable show, even if maybe not so compelling as Fisher or Morgan's vision that: "Maybe it's just someone calling Batman on another ship."

"It can be a soul-destroying sport."

Irishmen have loosed many a poignant passage through time, but few all that much more so than the bowman Justin Slattery: "We might have been a half a mile from freedom, but we'll never know."

We'll never know …

In a race in which little of the weather has turned up where it's supposed to turn up, the crusher for fifth-place Abu Dhabi came about a week into the leg with that trough below Madagascar.

Everybody knew about the lousy trough, with the wily French boat Groupama peeling off dramatically south and the dice-rolling Team Sanya heading north, to eventual results you might call mixed.

By the time Azzam surpassed the front at last, Slattery could draw from voluminous experience in his third Volvo and give the five days a special ranking in his all-time sailing frustrations: No 1.

The front went east as did the four central boats in the fleet, and the process went beyond maddening. The Azzam crew would undergo what Slattery called "a massive four or five hours" of "maximum work", the opposite of the trade-wind ideal, going through "the whole sail wardrobe" to escape the front.

Finally it would elude the front with fleeting hope, only to find insufficient wind pressure until the front "basically rolls over on top of you" again.

"You're so close, but now you're so far," Slattery said. "You're so close, but now you're farther away than when you tried to get out. You're almost better not having tried."

And: "You end up exactly where you were six hours earlier after all your pain."

The physical part, they could handle, he said. The mental part was, well, impolite.

Atop the unrewarded work, pile on the pressure of losing ground in a nadir that left Abu Dhabi's miles deficit in three digits.

Eventually after some similar duress, the rivals Telefonica, Camper and Puma's Mar Mostro located the "door" out and, Slattery said: "Our only option was to follow through the same way they did," and, achingly: "A day later."

In a game where one closed door can doom, Abu Dhabi chased fruitlessly from there. Said Slattery: "It could have been four or five minutes more sailing, and then we would have broken free."

And after saying that, he said: "It can be a soul-destroying sport. It can be. It can break you down a bit."

"In our shorts."

Occasionally, Adil Khalid's sailing friends here at home make an odd souvenir request. They ask him for the various clothing he wore during Leg 2, the first true Volvo Ocean Race leg of the Emirati sailor's 23-year life. One garment might rate unusually meaningful.

Never at sea for more than five or six days before this, Khalid confessed to trepidation before leaving Cape Town, but had lost only five kgs - and not his mind - after 16 days weathering the odd rigours of ocean-racing life.

Those rigours include this business of going days upon days without showering, so when opportunity literally rained from the sky, it became a debutant's exhilarating moment.

"We got out the soap," he said, "and we went on deck and took a shower. In our shorts."

"It's not a dull thud. It's like a bang. It's something very hard hitting something very hard. It's contact."

Mark it down as a first true Volvo leg also for Morgan, the Australian with extensive experience in the America's Cup, Sydney to Hobart and so forth.

And two days into the leg, make that a first pitch-black night of crossing the mighty Agulhas current, which streams along determinedly off the southeastern coast of South Africa.

At first, Morgan said, Azzam went "flat" into those waves, "slamming down pretty bad" before prudently changing the angle if not the speed.

Moods did seem tense on the boat, even if only vaguely related to the broken mast Abu Dhabi suffered back in the Mediterranean, and even though, Morgan said: "I expect to see far worse weather this race."

The Azzam crew "dealt quite well" with the usual Agulhas fracas, Morgan said, but it might be impossible to deal too well with going down below deck in the midst.

For one thing, Morgan has a frosty relationship with the nagging little chunk of hardware that secures the hatch upon the ceiling down below. It insists upon emphatic greetings to the top of his head.

"Little offender," he said. "Kills me."

"I did go down," he said of the night, "and I remember not being able to sleep. You rest. You might not sleep, but you rest." You also fly around. Your feet hit the walls.

"When you're lying in bed," he said, "you feel yourself coming out of the bed." The sound: "It's not a dull thud. It's like a bang. It's something very hard hitting something very hard. It's contact."

The sound also makes a sort of a ring - "Ting", Morgan said - owing to the carbon.

When you rise, he said: "It's almost impossible to get into your gear. Honestly, it's so hard getting into your clothing. You're just, Oh my. Seriously? You just stand in your puddle."

It becomes a near-Olympic sport "just getting your weather gear off the hook".

He sleeps on his side, which means the banging has frayed the skin on his knee, which means he has to use his sleeping bag no matter how hot, all of which means that while a crew might have done all the situational training in the world before the race, it never can anticipate all the bits and pieces and inconveniences of the trek.

"You realise," Morgan said. "That's the Volvo."

cculpepper@thenational.ae


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