Azzam crew focus on task at hand before Abu Dhabi leg homecoming

But the key to success, even in extreme arenas, is balance and that is what Ian Walker and his men are seeking as they embark on a long, drawn out Leg 2.

The Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team’s shore crew prepare Azzam to go back in the water at Cape Town as they plan the route to Abu Dhabi. Ian Roman / ADOR
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The organisers of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) are happy to sell the event as an extreme endeavour, which it is, given the distances and conditions on board.

But the key to success, even in extreme arenas, is balance and that is what Ian Walker and his men are seeking as they embark on a long, drawn out ­homecoming.

Walker and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam set off from Cape Town on Wednesday at 8pm (UAE time) in windy conditions but flat seas, the start of an arduous, long and potentially volatile second leg.

Between 22 and 28 days later, they will reach Abu Dhabi, the home of Azzam.

There is pressure already from being the winners of the first leg, and winners, too, of the in-port race in Cape Town.

They had been among the favourites pre-race and now there is a target on their backs.

This leg has the added pressures of it being, virtually, a home leg. This is where that balance will be necessary.

They set out with the feeling that this is the leg above all in which they must do well, while, in a professional sporting sense, they must consider it as just another leg. It will not be easy.

“It makes a difference,” Walker said. “If you were to say which leg of the race you most want to win, it’d be this one, because you want to repay all the support in your home port. So you want to do well.

“Does that change what you do every day? Probably not. We’re not going to get on the boat thinking, ‘we got to win this, we got to win this, we got to win this’ because the net result will be that you lose.

“It sounds very boring but, like all sportsmen, you just concentrate on the little things and chip away and hopefully, near the end, we’ll be close enough to strike out with the leaders.

“I’m not going to pretend it’s not important to us. I’m not going to pretend I’m not looking forward to getting there. It’s going to be great, but we can only do our best.”

It is not as if this leg will not be hard enough as it is.

Yesterday, race organisers said the fleet is likely to run into storms when they sail past Mauritius in the south Indian Ocean.

“We have just started the tropical cyclone season in the south Indian Ocean and it seems like we will have plenty of cyclones for this leg,” said Gonzalo Infante, the race meteorologist.

That could have a knock-on effect on the exclusion zones for the leg, in place to nullify the threat of piracy that, in the last race, so disrupted the 6,125-nautical-mile course.

A cyclone on one side and an exclusion zone on the other, as Team Alvimedica skipper Charlie Enright put it, was like being between “a rock and a hard place”.

The most significant factor could be that the leg is uncharted. It was divided into two parts three years ago, which was the first time a VOR fleet made their way into the Arabian Gulf, and the boats only traversed one part, being transported the rest of the way. So no one has sailed this course in its entirety.

As Libby Greenhalgh, the navigator for the all-female boat Team SCA pointed out, that element of the unknown further levels an already levelled playing field by rendering previous knowledge and experience of the stretch redundant.

“There is a big part of that leg that is unknown, that nobody’s done,” she said. “In terms of overall experience, of the other boats compared to us, it levels it more for us. Nobody has done that last bit.”

The uncertainty is why Bouwe Bekking, the veteran Dutch skipper of Team Brunel, is wary of what is coming and not looking forward to it particularly.

Team Brunel finished third in the first leg and Bekking is only too aware of the potential swings of this second leg.

“Everything can happen in the next leg, that’s what I said to the guys in the briefing this morning,” he said.

“ ‘Guys, don’t be surprised if all of a sudden you lose 100 miles. The bungee effect will come in again, so just chin up and go and get them back’. That will happen a few times.”

Maybe in this picture of volatility, a little familiarity might come in handy. The Azzam crew at least know their way around waters near Abu Dhabi, having trained there for six months before the last race. But that was sailing, not competitive racing, and that is only the last stretch of a long leg. It is home, but it is a long way away.

“First of all you’ve got to get there,” Walker said. “It’s the last 300 miles – there’s 6,000 or so before we get there.

“There’s a lot of water before then – big doldrums, possibility of tropical cyclones, exclusion zones, lots of upwind sailing, potentially.

“I’ll just be happy to get within range and even happier when we get there.”

Waiting “there”, Walker promised, as a reward for the hardships tolerated by the seven boats, will be “a fantastic welcome for everybody”.

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