x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'You can't help but think, I wish I was involved'

Out of contention in the closest Volvo Ocean Race ever, the Abu Dhabi boat crew tell Chuck Culpepper in Miami there is still plenty to fight for.

Abu Dhabi's Azzam had equipment breakage and forced retirement in two legs.
Abu Dhabi's Azzam had equipment breakage and forced retirement in two legs.

The tension of contention has left Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. The team mood seems to mix an understandable resignation with an unmistakable professionalism.

A dullish calm carries the days, blanketing the pent-up frustration and the heads-up determination.

The big chase is over, three ocean legs and three in-port races from the end. In the bunched tents of the race village north of downtown along Biscayne Bay, four other teams busy themselves vying to win the closest Volvo Ocean Race ever.

All week long, just 17 points separated first-place Telefonica from fourth-place Puma, with Groupama and Camper With Emirates Team New Zealand tucked in between.

A welcome pressure enveloped those tents. Abu Dhabi and its yacht Azzam remain solidly fifth - fifth overall, fifth in all four legs they have completed, fifth with 68 points, a gaping 79 shy of fourth place.

So an apt description of the reality came from Sarah Burney, the physiotherapist: "It's kind of like we're involved in this world that we're not involved in."

As the helmsman/trimmer and experienced navigator Simon Fisher put it: "It's hard sometimes when you see all the guys racing for the win. You're kind of watching it all going on. You can't help but think, I wish I was involved."

After eight months of watching others up ahead jockey for the leg wins, of two in-port race wins and one leg-portion victory into Sharjah, of a mast breakage in the Mediterranean, of a hull delamination in the Pacific, of two leg retirements, of faded expectations and of lives intertwined, opinions have congealed.

"There's probably a little bit of friction everywhere" with all the teams, said the watch leader Rob Greenhalgh, a winner aboard Abn Amro I in 2005/06.

"But it will probably be a bit higher here just because we haven't performed and the chains of communication haven't been great, so there's a lot of pent-up frustration."

Said navigator Jules Salter, a winner last time aboard Ericsson 4: "It's a bit depressing just to not be racing. That's probably what you miss the most. But getting from A to B is still a massive challenge, which not everyone has been able to do. It's still an achievement, but obviously not what we're here for."

Said Greenhalgh's fellow watch leader, Craig Satterthwaite: "We just can't seem to cop a break, unfortunately. You've just got to put your head down and do the best you can."

Adil Khalid, the Emirati sailor, said: "We're trying to push very hard. I keep thinking, Why are we losing? We are not lucky? The boat is not fast? Something wrong with the team?"

Said skipper Ian Walker: "Whenever you aren't winning or you're in a business not making money, it's hard. It's very hard. People on the sailing team aren't meeting their own personal expectations of performance, and we're all frustrated."

He soon added: "It's not all doom and gloom. Everyone's doing a great job. It's not to be and you have to deal with it. You have to hold your head up and try to do you best and hopefully get a break and then it will be all the more meaningful to us."

Said bowman Wade Morgan: "Everyone's still positive because in a sense we're here to see this thing through and every leg is a leg in itself. The shore crew never wants the boat to go out unprepared or not what we need. Everybody's disappointed, but we're not fighting about it. It's just how life is."

Salter refers to the fresh, edifying vantage point after “the last two times with strong, established teams that haven’t been from a start-up.”

Jamie Boag, the team director, said: "In some ways we're trying harder. We keep trying to reset ourselves. We come in here in fifth and we're disappointed and just kind of let that settle in for a few days. Take a mental shower."

Said Satterthwaite, in his fourth edition of the race, "It's just extremely frustrating."

A common line of thought goes back to the beginning and to Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's late start relative to its rivals. Boag points out that Groupama has raced as a team for 15 years, Team New Zealand for 20-odd years, Telefonica for three races, Puma for a second race.

Morgan reminds of the Volvo adage that the boat that has been in the water the longest tends to win.

Boag looks back to an initial meeting in an Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority boardroom and finds the 21 ensuing months "extraordinary."

As the ADTA eyeballs 2014/15 and mulls whether to "capitalise on what's been learnt and have another go," as Morgan put it, the sailor added, "When you look at the facts, we were the last team to launch our boat, the last team to have funds in place, the last team to start building. The design team had less time than anybody else. These are all factors."

From the get-go in practice last summer in Portugal, Walker would mingle mentions of the late start into the general ambition that stemmed from hope for the newly built boat and faith in the seasoned crew. So his version was not new when he reiterated it inside the sweltering Abu Dhabi pavilion at the lifeless Miami stopover.

"We always knew we were up against it in terms of starting late," he said. "But deep down, everybody kind of believed that if the boat's good enough, they could compete. "Nobody joined the team believing anything other than that 'we could be a front-row contestant'.

"The thing that's most disappointing for me, is that I know in so many ways we were a match for the other teams," he said. "Most of the guys on our team could easily go to any of the other boats here. Unfortunately the one thing we can't really do anything about is undermining our performance, really. And it's a long race. It's not much you can change."

He cited the success of the Abu Dhabi stopover and said: "Even if we're fifth in the race, there's still a lot of positive. Adil's sailed around the world. We've had more people following the race in Abu Dhabi. I don't think people will be seeing a complete, abject failure."

Even amid the deflation, this out-of-contention team still faces out-of-ordinary tasks. It must sail the fickle Atlantic where, as Satterthwaite pointed out, the same storms have brewed "for 500 years."

There's a leg from Portugal to France, a leg from France to Ireland, three more in-port races. There remains motivation, even if you have to rummage around the brain for it.

"You know, I think the motivation's to try and get a podium on one of these legs, which I think still can be achieved," Greenhalgh said. "And you know, have some good sailing and try to win a leg, I think, is the ultimate."

Satterthwaite added: "We've still got to just try and win a leg. That's what we've got to do. Just try and be the spoilers in a leg." Other boats must practice more caution to avoid race-deciding breakages, he said.

From the navigation portion of the tent where Salter and Fisher worked on laptops with their maps of the Atlantic on the walls, Fisher said, "It's not a completely bad experience. You still learn a lot and you still improve yourself as a sailor, and you can still improve the boat. We're not going to give up trying to do well. We've still got to take our opportunities and work hard. I'd like to think everybody feels that way. There's still stuff to be gained and won."

Boag said: "I think getting on the podium with where we stand in terms of performance would be really nice for us. It would be an achievement."

Said Khalid, "I was born for this thing and to keep doing it, to try my best."

Salter and Fisher find motivation in pragmatism, in their natural curiosity about weather and navigation. Others find it in the singularity of their experience.

Their plight in the campaign has seen them miss two iconic junctures for any circumnavigating sailor: the sight of Table Mountain in Cape Town coming in from the ocean, and the passage around Cape Horn at the base of South America. Azzam retired from both those legs.

Media crew member Nick Dana, in his first circumnavigation, turns that around. "Do the Puma guys feel cheated that they didn't get to sail to Table Mountain but they got to go to Tristan da Cunha?" he said, referring to the remotest inhabited place on Earth, where Puma got sidetracked after a mast breakage in November.

"It's more indication that this race is an adventure, still. Nor will we forget going through the biggest fjord in the world going into Chile."

Walker reached for inspiration through disappointment when he said: "I still turn around to myself and I still think, that's bloody great, we just sailed from Brazil. We're all here. We're all here safely.

"It's cool to sail from Brazil to here. We're still part of a very unique adventure and we're still privileged to be in this position even if we're not finding the performance level that we wanted to."

Still, said Dana, "The motivation is to be a giant-killer."

"And," said Greenhalgh, "just try to complete the race."

cculpepper@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE & Chuck Culpepper @ChuckCulpepper