x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Ian Walker: Azzam's skipper still wants to know everything

Following a long and successful career in sailing, the Volvo Ocean Race has become 'almost a way of falling back in love with the sport'.

His participation in the Volvo Ocean Race has revived Ian Walker’s love for the sport because of the opportunity to learn something new.
His participation in the Volvo Ocean Race has revived Ian Walker’s love for the sport because of the opportunity to learn something new.

You know, there might be two or three of him.

Ian Walker steers his medley of attributes and his bounty of energy toward such a variety of areas that it can seem as if he could be sending out facsimiles of himself. He's up in the office. He's down among the boatbuilders. He's over by the food rations flinging out some mouldy cheese and wryly muttering: "Looks like this might kill us."

He's poring through some emails now, but there's an exact replica right here by the wharf.

Here's a sampling of descriptions of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper from those who work or have worked with him:

"Bright" … "a very practical kind of man" … "definitely leads the way" … "bright" … "really strong relationship with his crew" … "incredibly mature and thoughtful" … "fingers in all the pies" … "bright" … "like my big brother" … "desperate to win" … "would never ask anyone to do something he wouldn't do himself" … "open and receptive" … "the voice of reason" … "self-deprecating" … "a very special man" and "bright".

Then, from the biography: 41, husband, father of two young daughters, Cambridge-educated, two-time Olympic silver medallist, America's Cup skipper, coach of Olympic gold medallists, skipper for the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race in 2008/09 and ditto on that last item with Azzam this momentous week in Spain.

And, add this one: rooster-like.

"He'd be up at first light," said Shirley Robertson, the CNN sailing presenter and two-time Olympic gold medallist whom Walker coached at Athens 2004. "So often the emails would come at five in the morning. I think he never stops thinking about it."

His first morning on that job, fresh off America's Cup gruel with Great Britain's three-woman keelboat team in an unsure phase, the sailors went for a run and found themselves surprised to find Walker ensconced - at the boat already. "He catalogued every screw and every knot," she said.

And throw in this one: omnipresent.

"An interesting character," said Mike Danks, Azzam's shore team technical manager. "He wants to know everything, just wants to be involved every step, every job decision."

More than most skippers?

"More than most skippers."

Then, how about adding this: contemplative.

One day last summer in Portugal, he looked at the whole of the sailing life and said: "It's funny because from the outside, you've got the perfect job because your job is doing a sport you love. The only thing that's a sad reality is that when you do what you love every day, that becomes your job, it's not a hobby anymore. You've got to be careful not to lose sight of what made you love it."

The Volvo, then, can become "almost a way of falling back in love with the sport, if you like, because it's a pretty interesting race" and it seems to make people's ears tune in, and it shouts something larger: "We're very privileged to do what we do and be involved in a sport that's so broad." Cyclists, he notes, have to sit monomaniacally on their saddles all day long. Sailing? "It's science. It's organisation. It's physiology. It's environment." Meteorology? "It's meteorology."

The two Emirati sailors, Adil Khalid and Butti Al Muhairi, see him cleverly spanning that lengthy bridge between authoritative and egalitarian.

"A very intelligent guy," Khalid said. "He put the team together, and he starts laughing with the guys, and when he's working with the guys, he starts coming down from his office, starts laughing and joking. I like him. So much patience. Very hard if you're a skipper. It's like everything is on top of his head."

"I respect him like my big brother," Al Muhairi said.

To glimpse Walker's knack for wringing exacting efficiency from hard circumstance and squeezed time, take a look at his tragic and uplifting course through three Olympiads.

Off the coast of Georgia at Atlanta 1996, he and sailing partner John Merricks clinched silver medals in the 470 class through a menacing cloud and a punishing storm. Their duo rang with healthy contrast, Merricks having dropped out of school to become an apprentice electrician and Walker having graduated from Cambridge. "We dovetail well," Merricks said then.

On the terrible evening of Wednesday, October 8, 1997, during an event in Italy where Walker and Merricks sailed and led as they continued to amass triumphs, a Land Rover carrying Walker and Merricks among 12 British sailors overturned, leaving Merricks dead at 26. "I don't think I've ever met a nicer man in my life," Walker said in Merricks's obituary the Independent's. "He had incredible talent. There was not one ounce of malice in him."

"They were such a formidable pairing," Robertson said. "They would have gone on to do amazing things in sailing. They had great respect and natural chemistry. John had a great feeling for sailing and Ian had that brain. ... Ian was young then, in his 20s, and he dealt with all of that, repatriating the body, helping John's parents. He set up a trust. He still runs the trust. Just incredibly mature and thoughtful."

Vowing to abandon the 470 class for good out of respect, he did not helm toward Sydney 2000 until one day in 1999 when he dialled the similarly bereaved Mark Covell, whose sailing partner Glyn Charles died among the six fatalities in the horrendous, storm-slaughtered 1998 Sydney-to-Hobart race. Walker suggested they team.

When Covell accepted, they aimed for the Star class with a puny 18 months to prepare. Walker told reporters: "It was Glyn's boat and I was very aware I didn't know what I was doing." A freak injury to Covell before the Games further marred the training, and Robertson remembers Walker feeling despondent. Yet apparently they had extracted quite enough efficiency for, as Robertson said: "That result for them in Sydney was something else. The Star class is all the amazing sailors, the legends. It's really difficult, technical, and you need a big brain and a great flair to race it well."

With the silver nearly a gold and the outcome impossibly emotional, Walker told reporters this flawless utterance: "There's a lot of Glyn and John in Mark and I. There's never a day gone by when we don't think of their families, and we dedicate this to their memory."

Athens 2004 brought that coaching role, the chance to "sink his teeth into something new" as Robertson saw it and at least one distinctive memory, belonging to Robertson: "I remember they kept the coaches behind this kind of box behind a line. I just remember it always caught my eye, he was almost like pacing in a room, just went from side to side in the box, just so nervous."

Robertson and Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb clinched the gold medal with one day to spare, another morsel of evidence for what Robertson cites as Walker's knack for "working out which things will make a difference and what's important, and when", Summary: "He's great at what can be done with the resources available."

After that, the route had gone rote. "Twelve years of Olympic sailing," Walker said. "Twelve years of sailing two miles upwind, then turning the corner and coming back down again and going up again. You've got to challenge yourself with something new."

Point of information: the Volvo Ocean Race does not sail two miles upwind, then turn the corner and come back down.

The 2008/09 circumnavigation found him skippering the Irish-Chinese entry Green Dragon and -of course - characterising it with a quotation they ought to put on the walls of race headquarters. After a Leg 1 in which the boat seemed to have hit a whale among other inconveniences, he said in the Independent: "This is insane. Thirty-five knots of wind, pitch black, 1,500 miles from land and we are desperately trying to squeeze more speed from a boat that feels and sounds like it is going to self-destruct any second."

Third that time, he returns with an Abu Dhabi team he selected and shaped and coached with trademark efficiency from a late arrival in the mix that felt rather - here we go again - pushed for time. Now it's a top quality contender in a race widely pegged as tight, and in August Azzam set a monohull record at the Fastnet Race in the UK even though Walker tends to deflect all credit toward Mother Nature.

With a veteran's wisdom he says: "We're very international, which is probably a good thing because you don't get cliques forming of one or two nationalities. I think we're good."

With a realist's frankness he says: "You get sort of like you can't do anything else ... But this is pretty dull, a lot of times, as well. I spend half my time doing emails and projects and spreadsheets. A lot of very dull stuff happens."

With a businessman's acumen he meets with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing officials and makes marketing suggestions. With a competitor's psyche he says he sometimes thinks back to those silver medals and wonders: "Why was I second? Why didn't I win?" With a self-deprecator's modesty he chirpily reports that after his last Volvo, his table manners became so "dreadful" that his wife, Lisa, would just gaze at him as if to say: "What are you doing?"

From a Walker-led sailor's perspective Robertson says: "He's such a tremendous help in so many different areas."

And from a Walker-led Azzam sailor's perspective the bowman Wade Morgan says: "It's all very fluid here. He's open, receptive. He wants to involve everyone else."

That's easier, of course, when there's a chance you might be plural.

cculpepper@thenational.ae


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