x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Right now, life is a breeze for Azzam crew

During a simple cruise for testing sails off the coast of Cascais, Portugal, life on 'Azzam' still never fails to amaze.

The daily grind has a different meaning for sailors aboard the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's 'Azzam'.
The daily grind has a different meaning for sailors aboard the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's 'Azzam'.

Sights, sounds and lessons gleaned from a day aboard Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's entry in the Volvo Ocean Race, Azzam, in the Atlantic Ocean:

When the wind has gone lazy and taken the day off, the sleek, black Azzam seems to greet the mighty ocean and engage it in some sort of minuet. The rhythm starts to seem downright beautiful. A tranquil day at sea provided only a wee fraction of the duress the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing sailors will endure routinely during the nine-month, three-ocean, 39,000-nautical-mile race.

Justin Ferris, the helm-trim man, said that after some practice days in these fractious waters, a novice visitor might disembark from the 70-foot yacht feeling beaten up and tinged with relief at survival. The competitors, meanwhile, would disembark exuberant over the pounding while cavorting with their beloved chum, adrenalin.

If a race did not beckon, the testing would never end. As Azzam prepares to ship out Monday, meet an impolite upwind and curl around rugged Gibraltar toward Alicante, Spain for the October 29 outset of the race, the principal mission on this day was evaluating a sail that will serve for roughly half the race.

At one point, the sail coordinator, Jez Elliott, suddenly materialised atop the mast to analyse the sail amid the ocean, seeming so airborne he might rub a cloud. It reiterated that these are amazing people unaware they're amazing, and that's probably for the best, as the aware types in life tilt toward insufferable. The skipper, Ian Walker, pointed toward Elliott and his search for unwanted corrugation in the sail which, all told, excelled.

Tacking upon leisurely sailboats looks functional. Tacking upon Azzam looks like some grand, grinding theatre production that steepens respect for the people who call this their career.

The public probably underestimates the team aspect of this game because, if anything, these teams might trump those of other sports given their shared toil and middle-of-night duress. There's a deep cooperation and a ceaseless sharing of information, and the skipper embodied the team concept one day when Azzam had a tango with a lobster pot, and Walker ultimately quelled the annoying sideshow by diving into the water and untangling things.

By nature and by practice, most elite athletes must operate in a cloistered world with scant knowledge of the actual world. Not so sailors, who dwell in probably a 99th percentile of planetary knowledge relative to fellow earthlings. At turns, Walker briefly explained that the great and villainous Portuguese sailor, Vasco da Gama (1460 or 1469-1524), wound up buried in India, at Cochin (now Kochi), until they disinterred and moved him, and that Cabo da Roca jutting off the coast is "the westernmost point of Europe."

It's also not far from where some boat and team members spend dawns surfing.

All skippers probably should possess some degree of gentility given the towering gruel, and Walker has heaping helpings of it, visible all through the day on land and, as it happens, at sea. It's a minor detail in the maelstrom - or, perhaps, not - but often he will give an order lasting anywhere from three to 10 words and follow it up with just one more: "Please".

Said Adil Khalid, the 22-year-old Emirati sailor chosen for the race: "He has so much patience. [That's] very hard if you're a skipper. It's like everything on top of your head."

At one point, the media crew member, Nick Dana, warned a visitor about a suddenly open hatch near the stern.

Apparently, it's not unprecedented that every now and then amid the night, somebody will just fall through and, of course, get up and keep working.

The food, a chicken sandwich, fairly excelled.

Of course, they're not yet to the powder-only stages. For now, they still get the joy of chewing.

It's never a terrible day when you see two dolphins churning through their natural habitat rather than jumping through hoops into swimming pools at amusement parks.

There's an exterior and enjoyable element to sailing around in a craft as compelling as Azzam. Bypassing or bystanding witnesses who know sailing often gawk. A man on a boat with a German flag grabbed his camera and snapped away. At the shore, people stood and stared as if suddenly seeing Kate Winslet.

The separate subspecies known as powerboat people, however, don't tend to care.

As ever, there are many worlds within the world.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae

 

@ For video of Azzam in action visit thenational.ae/sport