Abu Dhabi's Azzam set for scouting mission at Fastnet
Azzam is to get an educational tryout beginning today in the 608 nautical mile Fastnet Race, as the first Arab entry in the 86-year-old biennial competition.
By the time she exits The Solent strait off the English coast, rounds the lighthouse of Ireland's Fastnet Rock and sails back to Plymouth by Tuesday morning, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team, that commissioned her construction and hones her details, should glean a fresh boatload of information.
Along the way, she will encounter two of her six rivals for the nine-month Volvo Ocean Race that begins on October 29 at Alicante, Spain.
This trial-by-competition phase, 76 days before the Volvo race, can lend its own dilemmas, as Ian Walker, the skipper, said on the competition's website.
"The question is whether we race the Fastnet to win or whether we stay close to the other boats so we can learn more about our Volvo Ocean Race competition," the two-time Olympic silver medallist said.
"I know what can happen in these situations. You start out with a plan to stay close to the competition so that you can learn, and then suddenly the red mist comes down at the start gun and you can't stop yourself from going all-out to win the race."
The seasoned sorts, such as the Chinese-sponsored Team Sanya and the French insurance company-backed Groupama 4, will eyeball Azzam around the quartz-veined Irish rock and back to England, and from varying perspectives.
Sanya joined the race in June and refitted the Telefonica Blue boat that finished third in the 2009/10 Volvo Ocean Race, and Mike Sanderson, the captain, expects a "very humbling" Fastnet.
Groupama 4 launched their boat in May and, as one of the Volvo favourites, await what their skipper, Franck Cammas, called "a first rendezvous".
Noting the presence for the Volvo of five newly-built boats and two refitted ones (including Sanya's), Azzam bowman Wade Morgan of Australia said in Cascais, Portugal: "In certain areas these [refitted] boats have an advantage. They've got a different keel weight.
"They call it 'grandfathering'. But it has also been around the world once before and it's three years old. So, trade offs."
Azzam, meanwhile, has on board Jules Salter, the navigator who graced the ICAP Leopard crew that finished the 2007 Fastnet in a record one day, 20 hours and 18 minutes.
The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's (ADTA) boat continues a nascent run that began with the unveiling on July 5 in Portofino, Italy, a trip around Gibraltar to Cascais, and training in Cascais through the balance of that month.
From an arrival on Isle of Wight at Cowes in early August, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing has displayed the sleek, black Azzam with its Abu Dhabi logo to a roving yachting audience, with two peregrine falcons joining the ADTA's mission to use the 70-foot yacht as a tool to encourage tourism.
Walker has forecasted a "race within a race" in the Fastnet, with he and Volvo rivals "keeping their cards very close to their chests".
Gonzalo Infante, a meteorologist consulted by the Volvo Ocean Race, foresaw boats "jumping across the waves" after passing Fastnet Rock, picking up south-westerly winds of 25 to 35 knots after passing the Scilly Isles.
A sailor as well as a weather expert, Infante told the Volvo website, the boats will be "close to the extreme range of what they can do" by the middle of the Fastnet, and that it should provide "a good test for the structure of the boats."
Knowledgeable estimates have the finish at Plymouth at sometime between 6am and noon GMT on Tuesday, after which Azzam will continue on back to Cascais.
Before that, the Fastnet will also mark the international debut for Adil Khalid, the 22-year-old Emirati sailor chosen from among 120 applicants for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team membership.
At a press conference in Cowes, a most esteemed voice celebrated the presence of both Khalid and Butti Al Muhairi, the 27-year-old shore-team member, who sailed in Khalid's place from Cascais to Cowes while Khalid returned to the UAE for family time.
"It is so heartening to see two young men from a nation new to international sailing competition presenting themselves so well on the worldwide scene," said Ken Newman, the 83-year-old sailor set to compete in his 27th Fastnet race.
"They make the future look very bright indeed."
Published: August 14, 2011 04:00 AM