Sailing anything but a rich man’s leisure activity

Jonathan Raymond gains a lot of respect for sailors after spending a day with Team Brunel and getting to watch them prepare for Leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race.
Jonathan Raymond aboard Brunel ahead of the third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race on Wednesday. Jonathan Raymond / The National
Jonathan Raymond aboard Brunel ahead of the third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race on Wednesday. Jonathan Raymond / The National

Sailing is a rich man’s leisure activity, is it not?

The short answer? No. Sailing is competitive, athletic, intellectual – all the things that make for great sport. It is in the Olympics.

But, lazily, the perception of wealth surrounding the sport persists in pockets of the popular consciousness. In films, music videos, TV and the like, world-class competitive sailors can be a bit hard to find. Plutocrats and the high born are a bit more visible, out on the water.

On Wednesday, at the Abu Dhabi Corniche breakwater, where the Volvo Ocean Race fleet is parked for the local stopover, I found that stereotype to be lacking in reality.

The waves get to you

An appreciation for competitive sailing is difficult if your nautical experience is limited to cruises or ferries or the occasional motorboat.

Racing can be watched on TV or from shore, but to get a knowledgeable feel of a race means to be on board.

Most people can run around and kick a ball or shoot it at a hoop and have the most basic sense of what the actions of those sports feel like.

Most people can drive a car and understand the skills involved in motor racing, even if Formula One or other motor sports take those skills and magnify their importance a thousand times.

Not everyone can race a sail boat.

I rode on Wednesday out in the waters beyond Lulu Island with Team Brunel, the team that won the latest Volvo Ocean Race leg from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi.

Leaving the dock, an early impression is just how much the Volvo Ocean 65 – the one-design boat for the race fleet – bobs.

The natural undulations of the sea is not as noticeable on a ferry, but on a 65-foot (20-metre) racing yacht you really come up and you really go down on waves.

“Little waves,” Stefan Coppers, the on-board reporter for Team Brunel says with a smile.

The Abu Dhabi water is, indeed, typically tame. Perhaps a slight bit choppier than usual on Wednesday, but nothing to compare to blue-water sailing.

Heaven knows, then, what it can be like for these things in heavy weather, deep in an ocean.

Coppers raises his hand high, brings it low, and does that a few times, laughing. Big waves.

Teamwork is astonishing

Out a nautical mile or so, in the water beyond Marina Mall is where the wind picks up and, with it, the speed of the boat.

This is the art of the sport. If taking a battering from the sea and the strain of pulling and lifting and turning are sailing’s purely physical tests, then making the boat dance with the wind is its tactical trial.

Bouwe Bekking, the skipper for Team Brunel, shouts a few instructions and, almost like a football side taking shape with direction from their manager, the Brunel crew spark into a flurry of pulling ropes and turning cranks and shifting parts that all weave together into a tack or a lifted sail that makes their yacht cruise along.

The teamwork is unbelievable. It is a ballet on a boat.

What they can make the boat do is astonishing.

These crafts dart, they whirl, they knife through water in ways the uninitiated would not expect from a 65-foot water vehicle. Sometimes, when they tack or gybe, the boat practically leans all the way into the water. Anyone sitting with their legs hanging off the side would be getting wet feet.

They whip around buoys with inches to spare, so much so that, at multiple points along the ride, it seemed likely Team Brunel would clip one – or the start boat, which they hug at the beginning of the practice race.

Or even one of the other boats.

It is jarring how close they can get to each other and maintain complete control.

It looks like a battle scene out of a pirate movie and prompts a feeling of expectation that one of the crews is about to hook on and attempt to take their closest counterpart by force.

It seems inevitable that in the course of the many starts to these race legs or the in-port races, or even just the practices, that these boats must smash into each other. That they have not is thanks to the skill wielded in directing these boats.

Exhilarating experience

Maybe most impressive of all is not that they can do all these things aboard this complex manifestation of design and engineering, but that they do it, non-stop, for weeks at a time in the Volvo race to have a chance of winning one of the nine legs.

Being on board with the boat in full flight is an exhilarating experience, made even more so on Wednesday by gorgeous water, gorgeous weather and a gorgeous view of Abu Dhabi’s skyline in the distance.

It becomes clear why novelists have been romanticising this activity for as long as there have been novels.

Follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 31, 2014 04:00 AM


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