Competing in the waters of the Arabian Gulf in the Volvo Ocean Race excites the American, writes William Johnson.
Ken Read: ready to face the unknown
Rarely does a sailor as accomplished and well-travelled as Ken Read venture into uncharted waters. The American yachtsman is relishing, however, what he regards as a journey into the unknown as he draws up plans to guide his ocean-going vessel into the Arabian Gulf at the end of next year. Read, 49, was the skipper of the runner-up Puma entry in the last Volvo round the world race won last year by the Swedish boat Ericsson 4. The American expert is aiming to go one better when the so-called "Everest of Sailing" gets under way again.
The opening leg of the gruelling 39,000 nautical-mile odyssey from the Spanish port of Alicante to the South African tip of Cape Town presents no problems for Read who has negotiated that Southern Atlantic route on many occasions. It is what happens next that has been occupying his mind since the itinerary for the 11th staging of the event was announced. "Cape Town to Abu Dhabi, well that's a new one on me," said Read from his training camp at the renowned United States nautical base of Newport, Rhode Island, appealingly close to his family home.
"The left turn that we need to make after Madagascar heading up to your neck of the woods is a little different to us. "It's a new port of call and a new region for the Volvo Ocean Race and it is something that is perhaps well overdue. "The Middle East has been such an emerging growth market for a number of years now and it is about time that sailing figured that out. "We are all pretty excited about the prospect of getting there and spending a little bit of time there."
That relaxing stopover during the New Year celebrations of 2012 can only take place after Read, who is the chief executive of the Puma team as well as skipper of the boat, and his colleagues have done their homework, however. "Until now the only information I had about the region was when that English group got pulled over by the Iranians," he said, referring to the diplomatic incident last December when five British sailors heading for Dubai strayed into Iranian waters.
Read, who has excelled in boats of all shapes and sizes during a 30-year sailing career and was J-24 world champion on six occasions, stressed that it was vital to the success of his operation that the mystery factor was taken out of the legs to and from Abu Dhabi. "We are slightly more familiar with what comes after Abu Dhabi," he said of the third leg to the Chinese port of Sanya. "We covered part of that route last time when we went from India to Singapore.
"But the only people who are familiar with the Middle East area are the guys on our design team. We need to do 10-year average weather studies on the route from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi and then leaving Abu Dhabi to go to China. Otherwise we could come unstuck in that part of the race." Coming to grief is a high seas peril that Read deals with routinely. "I would not call this the safest work you can find" he said recounting the various "man overboard" issues he has dealt with over the years.
"You like to think that you are surrounding yourself with sailors who have enough experience to understand when there's a need to push the throttle to the floor and when you need to back off a bit. "These boats are so fast that we can actually sail into or around danger so we have the means to steer clear of the worst of it. You can avoid most things but there is no way you can avoid hitting something that is submerged and there is plenty of stuff out there in the ocean that is unknown and can ruin your day. As long as you are prepared for the worst, though, you will probably be OK."
Human hazards are also a concern for Read and his rivals in the marathon event. "We had a lot of training about what to do in a piracy situation last time we sailed from Cape Town to India," he said. "I'm sure that the same will apply this time. The key part is to avoid getting close to areas that are notorious for pirate issues. The organisers can do that for us. They put in exclusion zones and we just make sure we don't go into them and hopefully everything is fine."
Even though the 10-leg race, which features for the first time a UAE entry in Team Abu Dhabi, does not start until October next year, Read and his teammates are already working overtime in Newport Harbour. "It does seem a long way off but in reality this thing is coming up on us quickly," he said. "We have a lot of work do to in the short term - training, designing and building a new boat which we hope will enable us to bridge the small gap between coming second last time and winning this time."