Neal McDonald back on Azzam as replacement for injured Phil Harmer
ABU DHABI // It had become a Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) tradition of sorts – at the end of the last few events, Neal McDonald had suggested each time it was his last race as a sailor.
Each time, though, the sport has pulled him back in.
The 2011/12 race was McDonald’s sixth and, again, his last. For the latest race he joined the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team as a performance manager, an off-boat role similar to a coach.
Now, just as he has been settling into a desk role, he has been pulled back in again.
McDonald, one of the most celebrated British sailors of his generation, will be part of Azzam’s crew for the third leg of the race, which begins on Saturday, to Sanya, China.
He replaces Phil Harmer who, as well having injured his left hand at the start of the second leg in Cape Town, has been suffering from a yet-to-be-identified illness, which saw him lose 10 kilograms on the last leg.
“I never want to leave sailing because it is my sport,” McDonald said after finishing the pro-am race on Wednesday. “But certainly my plan when we started this campaign wasn’t sailing on the boat.”
McDonald was one of four reserves who had trained extensively with the crew before the race began and had passed the various requirements to be able to step in.
Being physically prepared, though, is one thing, stepping into what had become a tight-knit crew as a new recruit is another, and one he admitted to being nervous about.
“I don’t want to let the guys down. These guys have sailed the best part of 30,000 miles together now,” McDonald said.
“Although I know all of them, I’ve sailed with them, been on the boat with them in training, sailed around England with them, I’m aware I’m breaking into a very close group. So I’m a bit concerned that I do the best job I can and don’t let them down.”
The decision to replace Harmer was not an easy one, least of all on Harmer. McDonald said that had this been the last leg of the race, with points to play for, Harmer could probably have battled on.
But this early in the race, two legs down, seven to go, it was decided to let him recuperate before returning, ideally, after Sanya.
“It’s not really a decision I was putting my hand up to make,” Harmer said. “We sat down with Neal and Ian [Walker] and we all decided it was the best thing to do.
“If I decided to go on there was every chance that after 23 days at sea I might lose another five kilograms. So the plan is to get away now, get it fixed and come back to Sanya.”
Follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE