Next stop is Spain and then the world for Azzam

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing put yacht through final paces ahead of gruelling challenge

Azzam, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team boat.

Courtesy ADTA
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CASCAIS, PORTUGAL // Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing leave their training base later today for their final journey to the starting line of the gruelling around the world yacht race.

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Azzam, the 70-foot (21 metre) yacht, still needs some tweaks but everything is under control, says Ian Walker, the skipper and a double Olympic medallist.

He and his crew of nine sailors, backed by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, have used the Portuguese trade winds off Cascais, a fishing village just north of Lisbon, since mid-July for testing.

Walker said there were consistently perfect sailing conditions.

Before Azzam starts the first in-port race for the Volvo Ocean Race on October 29 in Alicante in Spain, the carbon fibre standing and side rigging will be replaced.

"We can start with brand new rigging so we have the least number of miles on it," Walker said.

"It is such a new technology, nobody knows how long it'll last, so it's the lowest-risk approach."

The shore crew will also take the boat out of the water to optimise the keel by adding weight to its bulb.

The keel will be then rebuilt and reweighed for measurements.

"It's a tweak that will make us go faster in stronger winds whenever we are at max keel," Walker said. "It gives us slightly more stability."

On its cruise down the Portuguese coastline and though the Strait of Gibraltar, Walker will continuously test Azzam's sails and how to get the best performance from the yacht before they set off on the first leg of 6,500 nautical miles to Cape Town, South Africa, on November 5. In total there are nine legs, with the final one finishing in Galway, Ireland next July.

Before that, the seven competing yachts will arrive in Abu Dhabi on New Year's Day after they are loaded and then unloaded from a ship at secret locations because of the increased threat of piracy.

"Realistically, we just have the practice race and four days of practise [on the way there]," Walker said. "There is a limit to the amount you can achieve."

The team went through their inshore boat handling routines yesterday off Cascais marina, where the America's Cup World Series was held in August.

Problems such as the spinnaker getting twisted or not unfolding were sticking points that they plan to iron out before the crew reach Alicante.

"The good thing is, it's going much better considering the lack of focus we have put on it," Walker said. "Most of our attention has gone on data collection and sail choice."

The sail to Alicante will be the last chance to add to the computer bank of sail data, which is analysed by Walker, his crew and 12 experts in the United States for optimum performance when racing. Along the way, they will also work on inshore racing.

Adil Khalid, the only Emirati on board the yacht, said he was looking forward to starting the race. After only seven months of intense training, the amateur sailor, who represented the UAE in sailing at the Beijing Olympics, said he still had a lot to learn.

He is only one of two crew members on Azzam who will experience the "Everest of sailing" for the first time, which sees the yachts travel around the Cape of Good Hope and the treacherous Cape Horn. Khalid, a grinder onboard Azzam, said he still has a lot of work to do before he takes on the Southern Atlantic.

Relatively new to in-port racing, the 22 year old was still trying to learn the ropes on some of the spinnaker sails. Different sails require different gears for grinding.

"I also have to work on packing [the sail]," he said. "It will make it much faster and the only way is by pushing myself harder."

Butti Al Muhairi, the Emirati stand-in for Khalid if he has to drop out, was well aware of the challenges that lay ahead of him and the team.

The shore crew member, who was an avid amateur sailor before he was called up in February, said the past seven months have gone fast but he wanted the see the start of the race.

"Between now and the start in Alicante, I have more practice to do on the boat and focus on certain aspects," he said.

The key to success was team work, he said.

"You have to be a hard worker with teamwork or else it is not going to happen," he said.

Al Muhairi was on the crew along with Khalid when Azzam won the prestigious Fastnet race this summer and beat Volvo Ocean Race rivals, Groupama, by four minutes. The crew also broke the previous record by more than an hour and a half.