x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The calm before the Ocean Race storm for Azzam

Chuck Culpepper spends time with the crew of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Team just before they set off on Leg 2 of the race, in the direction of the UAE.

Friends and family wave goodbye to the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team, on board Azzam, as they set off yesterday.
Friends and family wave goodbye to the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team, on board Azzam, as they set off yesterday.

Uniform in their white Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing shirts, nine sailors sit wordlessly, intently, attentively, in a meeting room upstairs at their base camp in Cape Town, South Africa.

Through the speakers attached to a giant video screen, a weather expert speaks at 3.30am from Boston, Massachusetts, United States.

Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race will begin in four-and-a-half hours, and this is the morning weather meeting, and the colours start appearing in a series of charts on the screen.

"That red there is a ton of stronger breeze, sort of 20 to 25 knots just outside the cape there at the moment," says the voice of Chris Bedford, speaking from Boston as the owner of a company that advises both Abu Dhabi's Azzam and the Puma boat in the Volvo Ocean Race.

"The pink is the hot water going this way," the Abu Dhabi sailor Wade Morgan whispers at one point.

There comes a blue chart with wave measurements, as Bedford says: "Fairly soon around the cape you should be going into a three-metre swell."

The morning of the start of the second leg, everything seems in place. All the food for the three-week voyage to Abu Dhabi rests on the boat, stored. The shore crew packs up the base as much as it can. It is a send-off day.

In the meeting room, charts keep materialising, showing weather for Sunday evening, for Monday, for Monday evening.

For 22 minutes Bedford goes on, describing all the possibilities. He notes the predictions for the GFS (the American Global Forecast System) model, and the EC (European) model.

Beside the charts are little indicators of the weather in Cape Town - 21°C, sunny - and the British pound to US dollar exchange rate.

Finally, Bedford says: "That's a five-day forecast there, and a whole lot of it's going to hinge on the evolution of this front. Any questions?"

Jules Salter, Abu Dhabi's respected navigator, says: "I guess if we fall behind the front … It's a case of being picked up by the front … Then probably re-cross the front end of it. Guess you're sort of stuck in it."

Soon Bedford and Salter make arrangements to speak once more before departure, and Bedford rings off, and the screen becomes a giant picture of Salter's two sons playing in sand.

Here they go again, seeking the vagaries of Leg 2. Salter, Justin Ferris and Simon Fisher note some similarities between this weather and the Cape Town departure of the 2005/06 leg, and some banter ensues, seeing as how they worked on rival boats at the time. "You've got to let it go; it was six years ago," Ian Walker, the skipper, says.

Walker briefly addresses the port-starboard stocking of the boat, and then the watch leader Craig Satterthwaite speaks up about the sail options, and Walker says: "Northerly winds are warm, right? That's a good thing."

Fisher: "That was the other thing that happened that day. Shirts off. And then we got mowed by that front and it was freezing."

Walker, at 11.02am in Cape Town, about four hours to go: "Let's make a decision, what we want to do." He consults everyone, and they decide to "get out to the start area, look at the wind speed and make a decision on the A-3" sail, as Walker puts it.

There's an overall team meeting coming in 28 minutes, but on the veranda beforehand Walker and Jamie Boag, the team director, briefly discuss the weather.

"Put it this way: it's as kind as you'd ever get it leaving Cape Town, because it can be heinous here," Walker says.

In the main dining area, Adil Khalid, the Emirati sailor, says he is nervous, awaiting the longest leg of his 23-year-old life.

On the whiteboard in the main dining area, team members, both on-board and onshore, have made a joking list of their car demands for Khalid for the Abu Dhabi stopover. The choices include a pink Audi R8, a basic Lamborghini, a red Ferrari 456 Spider. Butti Al Muhairi, the reserve Emirati sailor, goes for "a 4x4, any car".

The meeting begins, and Walker tells the 30-strong room, "I'd like to thank everybody again for your hard work. A little disappointed with fourth [in the in-port race] yesterday but quite pleased we got around the track," pleased to be "where we were in Alicante if not further along," pleased to be "moving forward very strongly".

He tells the crowd Azzam soon will be "beating out of here 15 to 20 knots" and eventually would have "two doldrums to cross".

He says: "A lot of uncertainty in the forecast after three or four days. There's quite a bit of discrepancy in the navigation solutions, as well."

Boag speaks of Abu Dhabi in early January, gives some instruction on protocol and says: "It really is going to be a fantastic stopover there.

"They're throwing the kitchen sink at it. We're going to be front and centre."

Team member Joyce Monroe has arranged all the packed lunches, and soon, three hours from departure, everybody eats. Before they do, Walker says: "Thanks, and Happy Christmas."