x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

There is no margin for error in Volvo Ocean Race

As all five boats were loaded in Sharjah on to a container ship, bound for an undisclosed port, a frenzied sprint race lent fresh evidence that this the most contentious race to date.

Azzam was the first to arrive in Sharjah on Saturday night.
Azzam was the first to arrive in Sharjah on Saturday night.

Apparently those skippers weren't snowing us in salesmanship when they pegged this the most contentious Volvo Ocean Race to date. A frenzied Saturday evening near Sharjah lent fresh evidence.

"I think what everybody's seeing is what all the skippers have been saying all along, that we've got five very good boats and five very good teams," Ian Walker, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper, told the Volvo Ocean Race upon arrival and victory in the 106-nautical-mile sprint.

"It's easy to be last. Telefonica, you think they would win hands-down with the lead they had and it's just not that easy because you've got very good people right behind and you haven't got to do much wrong for people to come past."

That means the very good people on Azzam could sense their deficit to Telefonica dwindling and sense opportunity "with about half an hour remaining in the race," Walker said, and that after overhauling Telefonica, Abu Dhabi "very quickly became more concerned" with ensuring the very good people of Puma "stayed behind us".

The very good people of Telefonica still lead a nine-month race.

Since starting on October 29, the round-the-world marathon has run seven races of various types, with Team Telefonica and Abu Dhabi each winning three and the French side Groupama winning one.

That three-boat list does not even include Camper With Emirates Team New Zealand, whose very good people very well could lead the entire phantasmagoria come early February once Leg 3 reaches Sanya, China. The slow road to China continued yesterday in Sharjah when boats began boarding the ship for delivery to an undisclosed port, a measure race officials chose out of piracy concerns.

The ship required five days coming this way, when the mammoth vessel carrying five 15-tonne yachts left the undisclosed port on December 28 and reached Sharjah by close to midnight of January 2.

After however-many days required this time, six boats - including the delayed Team Sanya - will primp for the slog to China.

In an ocean race, of course, points tilt heavily to ocean legs, the first two seeing Telefonica hoard 54 of its 71 points with two wins, and Camper rake in 45 of its 64 points with two seconds. Abu Dhabi's two in-port and one sprint wins have brought 18 of its 31 points.

Yet in this unforgiving group, that same viable Camper came last on Saturday. It's easy to be last, as Abu Dhabi was sprinting the other way.

For the wanting sprint on January 4 from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi, the bowman Wade Morgan said: "If the roles were reversed and the race would have been downwind rather than reaching, they mightn't have seen us."

For the winning sprint on January 14 back to Sharjah, Walker said: "We've talked a lot about how we sail the boat, and a lot of days there discussing with the designers, so I think one of the things we're all seeing is that you can get big differences in speed with minor changes in how you sail the boat, so we're just trying to educate ourselves, really, and trying to do a better job."

That meant the routine in-port presence of Patrick Shaughnessy, the president of the Azzam-conceiving Farr Yacht Design, brain churning at the laptop in "helping them understand and use the boat they have, better," Shaughnessy said.

"It's easy to imagine you'd be two to three per cent faster straightaway" if you could re-sail a leg, he said. "The techniques used to sail the boat, the direction you sail the boat in, that's all a learning process. The way you use the boat will be different at the end than it was at the beginning."

Still, much chipping away remains, Azzam having spent two days gobbling up seven points of the 47-point deficit it brought to Abu Dhabi. Now comes a hiatus with sailors scattering, Justin Ferris clear to New Zealand to see his family for one example, Walker remaining in Abu Dhabi to see Test cricket and going to England for the funeral of his friend Mikaela Allen, the wife of Azzam operations director, Phillip Allen, and the woman to whom Walker dedicated the In-Port Race win.

Stage 2 of Leg 3 promises potentially appalling weather and notorious floating debris plus a continued urgency to thrive in a ruthless crowd. "And of course," Walker said, "it's far more important that we do well" there.