Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's "Azzam" sets out on Leg 1, from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa. Ian Roman / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's "Azzam" sets out on Leg 1, from Alicante, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa. Ian Roman / Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing

Challenge has begun as Volvo Ocean Race fleet sets sail for Cape Town



ALICANTE, SPAIN // Whether fans were fluent in foreign tongues or not, being immersed in Spanish culture for several weeks underscored the point that the Volvo Ocean Race is a challenge in any language.

When Iker Martinez, the skipper of the Spanish boat, addressed the nuances of the nine-month odyssey’s opening leg, which began on Saturday with a gala bon voyage ceremony, he used words that any Westerner could fathom.

When he tossed around terms such as complicada (complicated), dificil (difficult) and impredecible (unpredictable), translators mostly were not necessary.

Suffering is a universal language.

For the first time in the four-decade history of the event, every vessel in the race has been built to the same specifications and, as the seven-boat fleet hit the open seas of the Mediterranean yesterday after a month of preparation in Spain, more questions than answers lingered about the nine-month journey.

Throw in worrisome variables such as weak winds, inclement weather, broken parts, icebergs, illness and injury, and the projected 24-day opening leg to South Africa could be a study in ­randomness.

As they queued up to travel from Escape Town to Cape Town, the skippers tried in vain to handicap the keys in the opening leg.

“I wish I knew the answer to that,” said Ian Walker, the skipper of Azzam, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing yacht.

Azzam and her skipper are floating testament to the VOR volatility. Three years ago, a mere six hours into a nine-month event, the boat’s mast shattered like the lead in a No 2 pencil.

Three years earlier, Walker’s boat clipped a whale off the coast of Brazil in the first leg.

As the opening chapter of the 72,000-kilometre marathon began, the moral to the story was already written: something other than the tacking is sure to go ­sideways.

“You will see everything you could ever imagine, weather-wise, sea-wise,” said Azzam crewman Justin Slattery. “You’re just coping with it, dealing with it.

“Some of it is a whole lot of fun, some of it is the hardest thing you will ever do. But, afterward, looking back, you realise it is the most exhilarating thing you will do in your life.”

The excitement started early in the morning, when an estimated 30,000 onlookers swarmed over the dock area for the send-off ceremony, which included a parade of team members and an invocation from a priest.

The noise levels, with helicopters, the crowd and a blaring public-address system, seemed to have more to do with a stadium event.

“The environment around here is crazy,” said Sally Barkow, a crew member and former Olympian on the boat SCA. “Everybody is all fired up. I’m counting down the minutes to get onto the boat, so we can get into our routine.”

Professionally, most sailors could not wait for the 6,500-nautical-mile leg to start. On the personal front, it was a different story.

Azzam navigator Simon Fisher’s infant son, Alexander, whose first birthday comes this month while his dad is at sea, had his face buried in his father’s shoulder for many of their final minutes together. This is Fisher’s first Volvo race as a father.

“I think he knows his dad is leaving,” Fisher said.

In light winds of barely 10 knots, the first leg began with a looping, 5nm jaunt around a series of buoys placed within sight of the Alicante shoreline.

After completing the close-quarter loops, the Dutch boat, Brunel, held the lead as they broke for the mouth of the Mediterranean, with Azzam about 50 metres back in second and Spanish entry Mapfree third. At minimum, it should take 24 days to reach South Africa.

A few feet from where Azzam was docked for the past month stood a large poster, covered with handwritten messages from each member of the boat’s crew.

As the fleet sailed towards the salty unknown, a comment written by Slattery never seemed more appropriate. He wrote: “VOR – The best, worst experience of your life.”

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