x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Never say 'never' again

It's probably best to cling to the reminder that while 'never' does tend to win repeatedly - otherwise it wouldn't be 'never' - 'never' does not win always.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, skippered by Ian Walker, had trouble on the first day of the race and are 44 points behind Telefonica.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, skippered by Ian Walker, had trouble on the first day of the race and are 44 points behind Telefonica.

It's always a bear in sport to go up against "never". "Never" is so smug, so churlish, so domineering, that it pretty much hovers around harrumphing.

Here we have Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing versus "never", in that never across 38 years has a boat sprung from such scoreboard inconvenience to win the Volvo Ocean Race or the Whitbread, the original name.

In fact, somehow, an event that dares to go around the solar system's fifth-largest world has proved emphatically formulaic, in a way a novice - hi - might find counter-intuitive.

Here's a zany event in which the Abu Dhabi skipper Ian Walker's last entry, Green Dragon, smacked into an apparent whale, something which never happens in football. Here's an event that would seem to boast untold vagaries, with canny navigators interpreting varying weather reports. Here's an event in which a contender suddenly can wind up shipwrecked and playing golf amid cows on the world's remotest inhabited island, as Puma's crewjust did, or where an on-board fire could lurk five seconds from surging out of control, as during Leg 1 aboard 2005/06 champion Abn Amro One, according to the captain Mike Sanderson.

Before reading that only yesterday, I had thought about whales and waves, riggings and doldrums, but never the prospect of the on-board fire. In a word, jeez.

Still, read back through the years and you start to feel numbness. Race tables have not shaken with lead changes. People have assumed leads and kept them.

In the most recent Volvo Ocean Race, in 2008/09, Ericsson 4 streamed out to a point's lead by winning the first two legs, stayed upright with a fourth place and a third, then padded the advantage by hogging legs 5 through 8, clinching with a third place on Leg 9 and holding an on-board picnic with cupcakes and finger sandwiches during Leg 10. (OK, not exactly, but you get the drift.)

In 2005/06, Sanderson's Abn Amro One ravenously took the first two legs and six of the first seven in a thump-a-thon. In 2001/02, Illbruck Challenge won the first two, the fourth and the seventh among the nine. EF Language in 1997/98, New Zealand Endeavour in 1993/94, Steinlager 2 in 1989/90 …they all zoomed ahead and wound up ahead, Steinlager 2 winning all six legs. (Earlier on, the race used a points-handicapping system which, upon inspection, gave me a garish headache, but a similar form did seem to hold then.)

When Abu Dhabi's Azzam shockingly broke a mast on the first night, certain lovers of cinema storylines - hi again - reckoned that if the boat could rediscover contention, the wrenching disappointment and a bulwark of a bowman overboard could feed one superb storyline. Alas, the Volvo doesn't seem to do movie plots.

So, with Abu Dhabi at 17 points staring uphill at Telefonica rolling in the deep at 61 at the Abu Dhabi stopover with six months to go, to what might suspense-seekers cling?

We could always start with sportsmen, who tend to relish "never", viewing it as opportunity. "Never" might be a rude ghoul, but it ranks among the most fascinating elements of sport.

Then, we could move on to some words two months ago from Brad Jackson, the Puma team'swatch captain in his sixth Volvo or Whitbread, a man who circumnavigates the world the way other people go to the drive-thru at the KFC. Seeing a field of unprecedented balance, the veteran said, "I think the boats are all very well-prepared, and that hasn't always been the case in the past … And, people-wise, guys who have done well in the race previously are pretty much spread through the fleet."

It might help to remember those assessments.

Or, for a resiliency role model, one could always study the 2005/06 entry Pirates of the Caribbean, whose first night brought a cracked bulkhead and a keel leak, plus the indelible image that Abu Dhabi shore team technical manager Mike Danks described, that of laptops floating around the cabin. The ensuing Leg 2 featured an unplanned stopover in Albany, Australia, so remote it's 418 kilometres from Perth. Yet from there, Pirates crept up to finish second.

Then again, some sailors have pointed out that field's overall weakness relative to this one. And once you meet competitive sailors, it doesn't take long to realise they aren't people who run around all aglow over commendable second places. It's probably best to cling to the reminder that while "never" does tend to win repeatedly - otherwise it wouldn't be "never" - "never" does not win always.

cculpepper@thenational.ae


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