x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Willcox 'living the dream' aboard Azzam

Chuck Culpepper: Former schoolmates say Paul Willcox, a reserve sailor for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, is the 'one guy who is doing what he wants do' out of their class.

Paul Willcox was doing any job that come up as a reserve sailor, but when Andrew Lewis flew home to Hawaii for the birth of his daughter, Willcox stepped onboard.
Paul Willcox was doing any job that come up as a reserve sailor, but when Andrew Lewis flew home to Hawaii for the birth of his daughter, Willcox stepped onboard.

Life is, of course, all about looking good at class reunions, so an unofficial honour bestowed on a 28-year-old South African earlier this year was really quite large.

A weary classmate or two scanned the reunion and named Paul Willcox, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's reserve sailor, "the one guy who is doing what he wants to do." It ought to become a reunion ritual: "The One Guy Doing What He Wants To Do Award".

That tangent intersects nicely with Saturday, because while we all have things we want to do in life, few of us have things we want to do as much as competitive sailors want to sail competitively.

They can take on a certain look when bereft of sailing, and while it is hard to pinpoint that look, the words "frustrated", "displaced" and "melancholy" give it a start.

While that want normally would be a tired old story, today it rings as fresh because of the bizarre circumstances of Leg 1 of this Volvo Ocean Race. Saturday a horde of sailing-deprived sailors get to sail again.

The round-the-world race will continue with the Cape Town In-Port Race, and half the fleet will continue with life as they remember it. That is the half of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, Puma and Team Sanya, the three entries who retired in Leg 1 because of broken boats, whose sailors have spent a galling amount of time onshore (or on ships).

Of those ill fates, Abu Dhabi skipper Ian Walker said, "It should hurt. It would be wrong if it didn't hurt."

With three reconstructions completed - or close to it - Saturday becomes a sort of festival of that big want. And in turn, the want finds an epitome in a guy who will follow from shore today, in Abu Dhabi's lone South African sailor.

The One Guy Doing What He Wants To Do, Willcox joined the Abu Dhabi team last January as a reserve sailor with the usual do-them-as-they-come, shore-team tasks as well.

He filled in for Abu Dhabi's In-Port win on October 29 in Alicante, Spain, when Andrew Lewis returned to Hawaii to see a daughter join the world. In September, Willcox stood at the shore base in Portugal and said, "You've sort of got to pinch yourself every now and then. We are sort of living the dream, you know."

He grew up in landlocked Johannesburg. He grew faster than other kids. He swam at age three, sailed from at six and played water polo, rugby and athletics now and then. He sailed on weekends, and twice or thrice on weekdays, and nagged his father for boats maybe all the seven days.

By about 21, he said, "I woke up basically one morning, like, this [sailing dream] isn't actually going to happen. So I basically changed everything. I moved to Cape Town, started working in a sail loft in Cape Town. I think the main thing many people don't realise about this sport, it's the sacrifices."

By 25, he worked some with the Russian entry in the last Volvo race, and by 26, he started e-mailing Walker, and by 28, he is a mainstay who, among the team, has developed one of the world's superior nicknames, Big Breeze.

He will tell you flat-out he ended two courtships for the sailing, and he can tell you more than most people can at 28. He can explain the physicality of trying to drive a damaged boat in the very big seas off the South African/Namibian west coast. He can tell of another time, breaking a rudder and having the bearings fall off, beginning to sink and ushering the thing back in.

He can say of sailing, "There's always something you haven't experienced. That's why it's a big thing about trusting. You can see when Justin [Slattery, the Abu Dhabi bowman] goes up the rope on the rig.

"He always makes sure there's a certain person there. Doesn't have to be the same person but always someone you trust on the rope. I've sort of noticed that. You've just got to be able to trust, whether you're getting along at that moment or not."

And he can sound pretty much wizened when he says, "It's never the same wave, never the same wind. There's so many different variables. I think that's why you see so many so many people with grey hair, sailing. Because there's no solution in sailing," because it is the puzzle that never gets solved.

So Saturday they go back out to the puzzle that never gets solved, and one abnormal race might find some normalcy, teeming with Guys Doing What They Want To Do.