x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Walker picks trimmed Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew

Team of eight, down from 10 last year, is a line-up of considerable experience, with 21 VORs between them. Osman Samiuddin reports.

Ian Walker will lead Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew. Paul Todd / Volvo Ocean Race
Ian Walker will lead Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew. Paul Todd / Volvo Ocean Race

ABU DHABI // It took six months, but Ian Walker and Neal McDonald have finally put together a crew they feel gives the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team its best shot at the 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race (VOR).

Returning skipper Walker, a double Olympic silver medallist, introduced a new, slim-line crew in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, and one more name will be announced in a couple of weeks.

In line with new race rules only eight sailors, down from 10, will be allowed on the boat, as well as one reporter. Walker and McDonald, the team’s performance manager, have put together an intriguing mix of the new and the familiar.

Four of the crew – Justin Slattery, Simon Fisher, Adil Khalid and Walker – sailed Azzam in the 2011/12 VOR. New recruits include Andrew McLean, Phil Harmer and Luke Parkinson.

That is a line-up of considerable experience, with 21 VORs between them. Harmer was a winner in 2011/12 with the Groupama team and McLean was a runner-up with Camper.

Walker has sailed with six of the crew before.

“It’s a mixture,” Walker said, before expanding on the long-drawn process of finding the right personnel.

“Half the guys were with us last time. We get a lot of people writing to me, sending their CVs, particularly younger guys.”

Race rules require two crewmen to be under 30.

“We trialled 10 U-30 guys last summer last summer in the UK, and in the end, found one with Parko [Parkinson] down in Australia.

“Some of the guys get recommended to me and some of the guys I have sailed with before, who weren’t available last time.”

The personnel will be more important than ever. One of the major rule changes for this year’s race, which begins in Alicante in October, is that all boats will be of the same design, a Volvo 65 race yacht. That levels the playing field and for Walker, used to similar regulations in Olympic competition, it makes a difference. The crew have been spending time together in the capital, out in the desert, quad-biking, riding camels and having fireside dinners.

“It’s something we have made a conscious effort to work harder on this year, not just looking at CVs, but talking to people, not just one person, but multiple people,” Walker said. “Take Luke Parkinson, for example. He was recommended to me, had written to me and sent a CV, but then I sailed with him 600 miles from Hong Kong to Vietnam, roomed with him for two weeks, then did [the] Sydney-Hobart [race] with him.

“This race is about people. We have to make sure we have the right guys and we spent a lot of time making sure we got them.”

One crew member who will need little orientation is the Emirati Khalid. The 24 year old emerged from over 120 Emiratis in January 2011 to earn a place on Azzam, but was one of the first to be re-signed for this year’s race.

Khalid has taken charge of the team’s sightseeing around Abu Dhabi, taking them sailing on a traditional dhow boat, as well.

“I am older, more experienced and I have a goal – to win it,” he said. “As a team, we’re ready for it, really ready for it.

“The first time, I wanted to win it, as well. We had a great team and we used to work hard together, but I learnt a lot of things on that race and that was a great experience.”

With fewer crew members, the workload on Khalid will be greater, and as Walker pointed out in his introduction, he is considerably more muscled than he was last time round.

“I was 83 kgs when I started the last race and when I finished I was 67 kgs,” he said. “I’ve been working really hard, weightlifting, cross-fits, aerobics. I am better-prepared physically. This time will be about the physical work, so you have to be ready for everything.”

osamiuddin@thenational.ae