x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A violent night then a dawn chorus

The Volvo Ocean Race contender Azzam may have bagged a record sailing time in its debut competitive outing but skipper Ian Walker tempers that success with a healthy dose of relief and realism.

:“The whole race to be honest, we were changing places,” Azzam’s skipper Ian Walker says of rival yacht Groupama. “We just pushed as hard as we could...”
:“The whole race to be honest, we were changing places,” Azzam’s skipper Ian Walker says of rival yacht Groupama. “We just pushed as hard as we could...”

With one triumph stashed in the sail loft and a yacht verified as a contender, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team heads south from England to Portugal accompanied by two other desirable properties.

It has relief, and it has realism.

The relief has quelled the natural sense of uncertainty that hung over the crew and its not-yet-raced Azzam in the Portuguese yacht harbour of Cascais in late July. It came on Tuesday morning in Plymouth, in the south-west of England. The 70-foot Azzam not only won the monohull division as the first Arab entry in the Fastnet race, but smashed a record and proved viable.

"Overall it's a relief to know we're competitive," the double Olympic silver medallist and skipper Ian Walker said. "We didn't blow Groupama out of the water, but it's a relief to know that we're at the party."

The "party" means the Volvo Ocean Race, which begins on October 29 in Spain, which stops in Abu Dhabi at the new year, which spans nine months and six continents and which Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority has chosen as a bugler for the emirate as a sailing destination.

The realism has come, well, from the skipper.

"For us, I guess our job now is to not get carried away because this is not the Volvo Ocean Race and that's the ultimate goal," he said. "We've just got to learn from this race and it sounds a bit boring but, we're really not going to get carried away, and we're going to focus on all the things we can do better."

That thought will fuel the gruelling toil at the tent complex by the angry sea in Cascais, joining a confidence born of winning the "race within the race", as they termed it at the Fastnet. Azzam not only finished in a monohull record one day, 20 hours and 18 minutes in her debut race since her unveiling in Italy on July 5, but it bested two of the foes it will race in three of the world's four oceans plus a sea here and there in the Volvo.

It finished ahead of the French entry Groupama 4, considered a prime contender, and the Chinese entry Team Sanya, considered a latecomer, respectively by almost five minutes and by just about one hour.

Azzam thrived in a race with its share of vagaries, epitomised when Rambler 100 capsized off Co Cork on Monday night. A lifeboat pulled 16 crew from the upturned hull, but skipper George David and five others were swept into the sea, and had to be rescued by a diving boat.

Through the stages from the Isle of Wight, around Ireland's Fastnet Rock, back past the Scilly Isles and into Plymouth, the three Volvo-bound boats jockeyed for position. The Volvo website praised Walker for "the most aggressive starting technique, throwing Azzam around like a dinghy" and "a short, sharp manoeuvre just before the gun" that ensured "a near-flawless start".

Blogging on Monday during the race, the Azzam media man Nick Dana wrote: "It's a very different tempo on board now that there are other Volvo Ocean Race 70s on the horizon", with "each watch" upholding "the intensity as the race remains tough between the three teams". He said there was considerable pressure on the navigator, Jules Salter, the Isle of Wight-born sailor who has already won a Volvo Ocean Race and a Fastnet among other laurels. All of that funnelled into considerable intrigue throughout Monday night, as both Groupama navigator Jean-Luc Nelias and Walker described.

Said Nelias: "The night was violent and the route was straight and when the dawn broke, they were half a mile ahead of us. We could see the colour of their weather gear on deck when we crossed the finish line, so it was pretty close."

Said Walker: "Ah, the whole race to be honest, we were changing places. And I thought they had enough at the Scilly Isles to beat us, but their tracker wasn't working so we didn't really know where they were so we just pushed as hard as we could and then fortunately at daybreak, first time we saw them, they were about a mile behind us, so we just defended to the finish. So we took the lead just in time."

With that in its young dossier, Azzam is expected back in Cascais on Saturday, followed by refitting from the shore team for about 10 days before a relaunch on August 31 for training in the demanding waters near by.

cculpepper@thenational.ae