‘Into the unseen’: Azzam flies out of foggy Abu Dhabi gates as Volvo Ocean Race Leg 3 begins

The Volvo Ocean Race fleet left Abu Dhabi on Saturday, the beginning of a Leg 3 journey to Sanya, China, with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam out to a fast start.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's Azzam began Leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race in the lead on Saturday afternoon. Photo Courtesy / Volvo Ocean Race
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If every leg of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), at some level, represents a step into the unknown, the start of the third leg from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, China, yesterday was a journey into the ­unseen.

So thick and heavy was the fog that descended on Abu Dhabi in the morning that visibility was drastically reduced as the third leg began.

Ian Walker clearly knew something though. The Azzam skipper had played down the advantages the familiarity of home conditions brings but given the way they started, it was clearly all bluff.

Moments before the start, as the crew bid farewell to their families, Walker had warned: “I feel good, the boat feels fast and we are ready to race.”

That is precisely what Azzam did, locating an early shift in the wind to storm into the lead before the first marker of the in-port section of the race, in conditions in which boats could barely see their competitors or the markers of the triangular course.

By the time Azzam was rounding the second marker, they were already more than 200 metres ahead of the chasing pack.

As they headed past the final marker and out onto the leg proper, they had completed the section in just under an hour.

More importantly, they were more than two minutes ahead of Race Team Dongfeng, the homeward bound team, and further ahead of Team SCA, the all-female crew that won the in-port race on Friday.

Given the very light wind conditions, that kind of lead so early was remarkable.

Some, such as the Team Vestas skipper Chris Nicholson – not racing this leg as his boat begins repairs from the damage caused from its argument with a reef off Mauritius – suggested the stars had aligned just right for Walker and his crew at the start.

It is likelier that local knowledge and some consistently good form – Azzam have finished on the podium in each of their past five races – played a role.

By the time they left, the fog was long gone but the light winds that bedevil the early portion of this leg are likely to be a longer-lasting concern.

Though the early signs were promising for Azzam, there is much water still to be crossed.

Azzam’s navigator Simon Fisher reckoned “this leg is looking to be probably among the most difficult. There is just a lot to think about.”

Expectations for the duration of the leg range from between 21 and 24 days, though Fisher said, historically, the average completion time for this leg has been 20 days. That, he warned, is unlikely this time round.

However long it takes, the leg is expected to be another closely fought one.

The narrowness of the early route means the fleet will probably stick together for a while.

The first really big decisions will be taken when the fleet starts heading down the west coast of India: some will stay close to shore, others will move away. It could be a key moment.

More pivotal moments will arrive near the Bay of Bengal and then the Malacca Straits.

There the man-made obstacles of other boats and ships is such that Charles Caudrelier, Dongfeng’s skipper, is more concerned about getting through in one piece.

“The challenge is to finish the leg with the boat in good shape first and foremost,” he said.

“You can meet a lot of things, have a lot of trouble and a lot of cargo around there. So my main concern is this – OK I want to win for sure, but first I want to arrive with the boat and crew in good shape.”

After two second-place finishes, Dongfeng are tied at the top of the overall standings with Azzam and Team Brunel.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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