x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

What it is like to go overboard on Azzam in the Volvo Ocean Race

Chuck Culpepper describes the experience of jumping off the vessel during the second leg of the Volvo Ocean Race.

Chuck Culpepper gasps for air following his leap.
Chuck Culpepper gasps for air following his leap.

How on watery earth does this happen?

One day, you find yourself working in Abu Dhabi.

Another day, you find yourself tiptoeing into the baffling realm of sailing, a world with its own dialect and amphibious humans.

And then another day, a second Sunday in December, while scared to the verge of queasy, you begin doing things that make you unrecognisable to yourself.

You crawl through the metal fencing on the back of a surging 70-foot racing yacht. You wriggle through your size 13 trainer after it briefly and awkwardly snags. You pivot upon the last precious inch of stern, and you step off into the middle of the ocean, or bay, or maybe just the deep.

To Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team members, this feels run-of-the-mill. To me, a land-based mammal, this feels impossible. It's outlandish. It's dreamlike. It's ... not as cold as forewarned.

Water-resistant-apparel technology really amazes, once you learn how to don it, once you finish looking imbecilic trying to pull the rubbery neck gator over your head, and once you have heard Ian Walker, the skipper, holler: "It goes around your neck!"

The one-time first lady of the United States and full-time thinker Eleanor Roosevelt said: "Do one thing every day that scares you." I thought of her repeatedly on Sunday off the South African coast.Abu Dhabi's Azzam and five rivals left Cape Town toward Abu Dhabi for Leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race, but before they could reach oceanic wilds, they had to negotiate an 11-mile "inshore" course.

For that portion, they could bring a guest, as long as that guest jumps off and refrains from squatting on board and spending the ensuing weeks babbling about the Agulhas current and habituating to freeze-dried food.

So with a jump in the near future, the pre-jump hours became tremulous. They loosed more evidence of the downside of the human imagination. What would happen? How far back would the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) trail Azzam? How long would I be in the water?

The team commercial relationship manager and skilful sailor, Carla Nebreda, guessed 15 or 20 seconds. That helped some. On the dock, the team director, Jamie Boag, reversed the usual interview direction and pretended to interview the interviewer. That helped somewhat.

The sailors, of course, helped plenty. At separate times both Walker and the helmsman-trimmer Justin Ferris wondered if I were aware of the presence of sharks in the bay, but luckily I had seen the shark tour brochures so did not require the reminder. When Walker later explained that if I did not push the air upwards out of the suit and then tipped the wrong way in the water, he said, "You could drown," the seafaring bluntness oddly refreshing.

We began. Out of the dock and around the bend, it amazed me just how many vessels float around out there, especially on a day of spectating. People did gawk at the chic Azzam. They gawked from fan boats, and from leisure boats, and from other boats. Walker said this always makes him think of his childhood in Southampton, England, when the sight of the latest cool and competitive sailboat would pry wide his eyes.

I jotted this down, then wondered if the ink on the little piece of paper would survive the ocean. The New Zealand sailor Craig Satterthwaite, part man and part topographical formation, said, "This is your lucky day," and handed me 240 stray rand (Dh 110) he had found.

I shoved all this in the pocket of my shorts as Azzam spent an hour sailing around readying for the 3pm start, with Table Mountain and the Cape Town skyline booming as a peerless backdrop. Soon, Walker brought the guest suit to the stern area where guests tend to sit, and said its most recent inhabitant had been Zinedine Zidane, the retired French footballer, back in the Mediterranean Sea, back at the Leg 1 outset, back when Zidane jumped off backward.

As we pulled on suits, Walker asked if I minded ruining my dilapidated trainers, worn since 2009. (No.) He explained that before leaping, I should not grab a certain stanchion because my weight might yank it off and break Azzam. (Whoah.) He explained about the air, and I would spend the next two hours serially, ludicrously pushing on my legs to chase excess air that would initiate drowning.

The neck thing felt tight, perhaps curbing oxygen until I forgot it does not belong on the head. Wade Morgan, the affable bowman who really went in the water in the Mediterranean darkness, came back to chat, but my fear seemed to short-circuit my hearing of roughly every other sentence.

Things got hectic. Sailors barked out countdowns to the start. All grew blurry, and with Walker's deft choice of starting-line position, off went Azzam, grabbing a lead, roaring through the bay, racing for real. The sailors went frantic, big boys at a big-boy game, the adrenalin overwhelming, practically visible.

It was deeply, deeply impressive, and if I had not kept pressing at my pants legs to push air, it would have been triple-deeply impressive.

To think they carry on with that tenor - or close to it - for three-week slogs, presents a fresh layer of marvel. Riding high at the wheel, Walker turned around and yelled: "You don't get this in Formula One!"

They tacked. Azzam rounded markers. At one point it skirted just past some sort of giant, brutish, iron-heavy orange tanker from Rotterdam, and I wondered why such a monstrosity lurked right there. At another point Walker gave me an order, moving me atop the starboard-lying boat to shift my weight and "help us get to Abu Dhabi faster".

Then, after the third marker, he said something else. He said: "Chuck, your time is up."

There's something strange in life whenever you start to do something you've already pictured many times over. Maybe it's giving a speech, or getting medical-test results, or jumping into an ocean, but I always wish I possessed a switch that would stem all the preliminary envisioning. As I moved my muscles while feeling disconnected from them, I pulled that neck support halfway over my head until Walker noticed and corrected.

In my mind's eye, I still see the bright, witty sailor Simon Fisher laughing at me, but that could be a mirage.

I bent over and contorted through the wires, getting wordless help from the esteemed navigator Jules Salter, a good man who utters little. Turning around, I saw the RIB, more distant than I expected, unaware the RIB keeps distance so as not to run over the guest, as the shore-team manager Mike Danks explained later. Heading toward the water: How on watery earth …

I sort of just stepped, and upon entry, the life jacket inflated automatically. I submerged only briefly. I barely had time to gawk at the distant Table Mountain or pat a shark. Was it 15 seconds? Twenty? No clue. In a flash the RIB pulled up expertly, and down leaned the sail coordinator Jeremy Elliott and then the maintenance guru/RIB driver Ben Clifford, easily the two best looking men I had ever seen.

They yanked me upwards glitch-free, and the whole simple, wonderful, stupid, unforgettable moment congealed into exhilaration. I was breathless but not really cold. We bounced along under motor and they corralled - on the second try - a floating box media crew member Nick Dana heaved from Azzam. We returned to shoreside gawkers, then to the Abu Dhabi base camp wharf where napped two seals, so plump they seemed to have eaten everything from fish to discarded lorry wheels.

Brains remain mysterious, so I would wake at 3am in fear, re-picturing a scene embarrassingly benign. Yet in the evening hours before, rival feelings had come. I wished hard that my neckwear diversion had not cost Azzam any seconds, and I spent a good while with an unmistakable urge to go and do that again.

cculpepper@thenational.ae