x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The Azzam crew have something to smile about

Despondency has turned to delight as the Azzam crew are, finally, able to enjoy themselves in the Volvo Ocean Race.

Craig Satterthwaite, the crew's watch leader, likes being out front.
Craig Satterthwaite, the crew's watch leader, likes being out front.

Despondency has turned to delight as the Azzam crew are, finally, able to enjoy themselves in the Volvo Ocean Race

A team so beaten that 10 days ago it seemed to want to just get this thing over with has spent the last few days exhilaratingly routing its competition.

Isn't sport grand?

The theatre without a script always retains the right to veer to the last place you would expect. Had you spent time among the flattened Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team at the Volvo Ocean Race stopover in Miami, then watched lately as they surged ahead of five rivals in the Atlantic Ocean and fattened the lead, you would say …

You would say it makes no sense, and that sport is at its best when things make no sense.

Azzam had finished precisely fifth in all four legs it had completed, retiring from two others with damage. At no juncture in four oceans had it led a leg except fleetingly.

Even the hope of an overall podium spot - say, third in the nine-month, round-the-world race - had fizzled as four other boats vied for first place in the closest race to date.

Abu Dhabi's sailors had concluded that no wind condition suited the boat against the others. At least some dissension seemed to hover.

In Miami, Ian Walker, the skipper, came into an Abu Dhabi pavilion cooked by the heat and humidity for an interview. When he sat, he put down his Thera-Gesic pain-relieving cream as one would put down a pair of sunglasses. When he stood afterward, he cringed and grimaced and grabbed his leg such that the pain seemed almost contagious.

At moments, he seemed in some woozy zone beyond crushed. At 42, this might be his last chance at this storied domain after switching from his two silver medals in Olympic sailing to ocean sailing, almost a different sport. It was supposed to go better than his fifth-place finish skippering the underfunded upstart Green Dragon last time around.

Instead, he had wound up saying: "The race has been tough. It's taken a lot out of us, really."

Of the remainder, he had wound up saying: "It's to try and save a bit of face, isn't it?"

He allowed that any ensuing leg win would be more meaningful because of the struggle.

He said: "People are always free to leave if they're not happy, and nobody's leaving." He said he felt for the guys who had won the race before, including Jules Salter, regarded as one of the world's best navigators.

In truth, many felt for Salter, a tranquil, decent, brainy sort who won as navigator aboard Ericsson 4 in 2008-09.

"I guess, yeah, it is hard," said Simon Fisher, the helmsman/trimmer who was navigator for ABN Amro II in 2005-06. "It's frustrating when everything you try, you don't really get rewarded.

"He's very good because he's very matter-of-fact and realistic and well-grounded. He thinks through everything and is very logical. In this position it can be very easy to get overly emotionally invested in whether it works out or not."

In a sense, the navigating area of the Abu Dhabi tent complex seemed the most immune to dourness. That is because the logical minds of Salter and Fisher strain daily against the ceaseless puzzle of navigating.

As Salter put it: "You can learn every time, see something different every time. It's still a challenge. You've still got to keep up your job as best you can." As Fisher said: "It's not a completely bad experience. You still can learn a lot … You can still drive yourself as a sailor and get smarter and put yourself in good standing for the future."

Those sentiments are sincere, and true, and not what anybody wanted to say back at the hopeful outset.

So out they went two Sundays ago, after winning Miami's in-port race. For a time they jockeyed for third. Surely soon they would settle into fifth. Then in a fine mystery, they surged to first, slipped to second and surged again to first, Walker crediting Salter for the deft path through fickle winds and swirling currents.

Photographs from the boat showed smiles. Walker spoke of a great phase for Abu Dhabi even if Lisbon and the eighth stopover remained a week-plus and many perils away.

And while Azzam cannot win the overall race, some of its experienced sailors who had won legs on eliminated teams before spoke of poignancy and hugs and even tears. They do, after all, cross an ocean without taking a plane.

It is funny how storytelling gets associated with children and bedtime when people crave good stories all through life. Here's one that was finished, done, dead, yet might have a giddy epilogue. It makes no sense, but then, sport remains grand.