x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Identical boats level playing field in Volvo Ocean Race

Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper, says his crew has 'no excuses' to not do well in this year's competition. Paul Oberjuerge writes.

Ian Walker is confident of a strong showing from Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew. Tim Stonton / AFP
Ian Walker is confident of a strong showing from Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew. Tim Stonton / AFP

Ian Walker recalls his low point, as skipper of Azzam, during the 2011/12 Volvo Ocean Race.

It was not the shattered mast five hours into the round-the-world race. It was not even the potentially life-threatening hull failure deep in the cold and heaving seas of the Southern Ocean.

It was in sunny Miami, where the Abu Dhabi boat trailed in last among the five that completed the 4,800-nautical-mile journey from Itajai, Brazil.

It was then that Azzam’s skipper was forced to concede that his boat simply was not competitive.

“Before that, we thought that in the proper conditions we could be fast,” he said on Tuesday at the introduction of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing (ADOR) crew, who will compete in the 2014/15 edition of the race. “We had come most of the way round the world believing we could be strong downwind, even if we struggled for speed in other conditions. But this was a downwind leg.

“It was devastating.”

But from that low ebb came Azzam’s greatest moment, for which Walker is justly proud.

He managed to restore the spirits of a demoralised crew, who won the Miami in-port race, and followed that with a shock victory in the 3,590nm Atlantic crossing to Lisbon.

“I don’t think he comes back without that win,” said Neal McDonald, the ADOR performance manager for the upcoming race. “He needed that success.”

Azzam was in its usual position, behind, as the leaders approached a weather system. They thought they could slingshot around the top of it, but the front drifted north and the leaders were becalmed. In a bold and canny move, Azzam was able to steer north and catch the winds. “We went from 10 miles behind to 150 miles ahead,” Walker said. Then they held on, eventually winning by a mere five minutes.

With the vantage point of nearly two years, Walker compares the fate of Azzam, in 2011/12, to a Formula One team who have no clear idea where they stand – until the racing begins.

“It was like the McLaren team last year,” he said. “It wasn’t until the third or fourth race that they realised they were not fast enough – but then they have to carry on for the whole of the year with what they have. Something they couldn’t fix.”

So it was, with Azzam. If the boat had a slight advantage anywhere, it was in light, onshore winds, accounting for their three in-port race victories.

But in blue-water sailing, their Farr Yacht Design boat was no match for the three built by the Argentine Juan Kouyoumdjian for teams Groupama, Camper and Puma, who finished 1-2-3 in the final table.

The great advantage for Walker in the coming campaign is Volvo Ocean Racing’s money-saving decision to equip the fleet with identically prepared, 65-foot yachts.

Walker, 43, is intimately familiar with sailing competitions featuring one type of boat. In particular, at the Olympics, where he earned a silver medal at Atlanta 1996 in the 470 fleet and at Sydney 2000, where he got another silver, this time in the Star class.

He expects the Volvo one-design boat to be even more “identical” than the boats in the 470 or Star fleets, with Volvo Ocean Racing officials weighing and measuring components of every boat each step of the way.

Walker welcomes this.

“Now, it’s about us, the sailors, not the boat,” he said. “I welcome that. No excuses.”

The hope, as ADOR moves into six months of training, is that the new boat will be indistinguishable from the others in the fleet. Walker would be happy to wage a fair fight on the high seas.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae