Azzam skipper Ian Walker and his crew will begin their around-the-world race on Saturday. Courtesy VOR
Azzam skipper Ian Walker and his crew will begin their around-the-world race on Saturday. Courtesy VOR

The Volvo Ocean Race skipper who has no ‘off’ button



All sports require their athletes to be switched on to a degree of intensity that is beyond the remit of most humans. It may only be in short bursts but it is not natural or especially healthy. That is what it takes, though – more so at the elite level.

The problem Ian Walker has is two-fold. He finds it hard to switch off even within the minutiae of everyday life. See that chair over there, not pushed back in its place under the table? He will make sure it is tucked back in.

He is, he reveals, “a bit of a control freak” and, well, you cannot be a bit of that. Either you are, or you are not.

Walker is also about to skipper Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam for the second time in the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), which is not a sport so much as a war against yourself and the elements.

It is a battle to stay alive. It is a gauntlet thrown down to nature.

Hard to imagine Walker turning off at any point for that.

“One of the dangers I am very aware of,” he says, “is if you are too intense, you can’t keep that up for 20 days, so you have to learn to let go. You have to learn to relax.”

Is that difficult?

“It is, because you’re on deck and there’s a boat next to you and you spend four hours trying to get a little bit in front, and then you go and lie in the bunk and you’re wondering where they are, what they are doing. So you naturally want to keep getting up and looking.”

Walker is not superhuman. Like everyone else on Azzam, he will have to sleep two-and-a-half hours at a time, three times a day and let go; switch off.

He has to trust his team so that even when he wakes up and Azzam may have fallen behind, the rest will help him pull back again.

Except, sleeping is easier said than done.

“Even if you’re asleep, you notice changes in the motion of the boat,” he says. “You might be asleep but you hit some bad waves or hear a noise and you’re awake, wanting to check this. Is something rubbing on the rigging? Is something on the keel?”

When do you switch off?

####

The moment Ian Walker switched on was when he was 11.

He had been sailing three years by then, unusually because he came from a family with zero sailing ­tradition.

He did not live by the sea – growing up in Sevenoaks in Kent. Somebody just happened to take him sailing when he was eight on a tiny lake near his home, and he liked it.

At that point, West Ham Football Club battled for attention as well. He wanted to play for them. His 11th birthday present was a trip to the club to spend a day with the manager, John Lyall, and club great Trevor Brooking.

But that year, sailing won out. The moment broke clear through teary eyes, in the middle of winter. He was at the Weir Wood Sailing Club.

“I used to crew for this girl. It was freezing and very windy, and we took the sails down and came in because it was too cold and windy,” he says.

“I was crying and I couldn’t feel my hands because it was so cold, and I remember this boat going past, with the spinnaker up, a guy on the trapeze, like they were doing a thousand miles an hour, and everybody was saying, ‘that’s so and so training for the Olympics’.

“I remember thinking immediately, ‘I want to do that’.”

From there grew a swift obsession. He would wait eagerly for sailing magazines. The walls of his room were plastered with posters of boats, not a usual point of youthful adoration.

He won a prize early on, which was important but nothing grabbed him as much as the fact that sailing asked him questions other challenges did not.

“It’s like chess on water, working out the wind shifts and angles,” Walker says. “It is physical, but it is just as much mental and technical and because I was good at it and got better, I wanted to do more.”

Sailing also offered him a scope beyond anything else he knew.

“The one thing about sailing was that there was no reason why anybody else should be any better than me. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way but there is no reason why I can’t practise and get better than anyone else in the world,” he says.

“I could never be a 100-metre runner or play on the left for West Ham because I was never going to be fast enough. But sailing, I felt there was no reason anybody should be able to beat me.

“I would just sail around the lake, on my own, after school and time myself, sailing around the buoys, round and round. Which is ludicrous because you get a little bit more wind some days and you will get around faster, what else are you going to do? I was on my own and I wanted to get better so I would just sail round and round. I was mad.”

It was a good time to be growing up mad about sailing. One of the sport’s seminal moments occurred when Walker was 13 in 1983. The supremacy of the US in the America’s Cup – the longest winning streak in sport, spanning 132 years and 26 editions – was finally ended by an Australian yacht.

The win prompted an unofficial national holiday in Australia, with the prime minister Bob Hawke famously saying: “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.”

Walker was blown away. “It was a big thing, enough to stop a whole country for the day,” he says.

Fifteen years and several national titles later from that winter’s day, the obsession led to him becoming that “thousand miles an hour” guy.

He was an Olympic sailor, winning silver medals in 1996 and 2000; in Atlanta he sailed in the 470 class, a two-man dinghy requiring supreme levels of fitness. Four years later he competed in the Star class, a two-person keelboat; that, it is worth remembering, is a one-design class.

####

So, no, he will not be switching off. Already, just getting to when the race begins, Walker’s role at Azzam has been like the chief executive of a medium-sized business. It is an inverted pyramid of responsibility.

At the outset of the project he is managing sponsors, helping raise money, putting a crew together and managing them, keeping them focused, overseeing budgets, even negotiating with clothing manufacturers.

As race-time draws near, auxiliary responsibilities are shed and it narrows down to the boat. Skippering is plenty demanding, requiring his full energy.

There are, after all, few sports where the first priority is as stark as to ensure nobody dies. Thereafter, it gets easier, more sport-like.

“Getting results, creating value for sponsors. I have a huge responsibility for the guys in my team,” Walker says.

“They’re the best at what they do and for them to do a good job, I have to provide them with resources, equipment, time and personnel for them to be at their best.”

It is a unique role, demanding a far broader grasp than the average sporting captain.

It is a role being fulfilled by a sailor who was flung into leadership. In Walker’s first VOR, in 2008/09, he was chosen to skipper an Irish-Chinese entry, the Green Dragon. He had not sailed more than 1,000 kilometres offshore at that stage and, by his own admission, “didn’t have a clue”.

He learnt fast, though, because he had to, working out that he had to trust those around him. That created the leadership style we see now, built on consensus and trust.

“It’s like you’re a football player-manager. You’re managing the team but you’re also one of the players,” he says.

“On board, ultimately, you are responsible. Everyone has their own style. Some are dictatorial, making all decisions when awake. Others lead by consensus. I’m more like that because I have guys like ‘Chuny’ Bermudez who have done five VORs who doesn’t need me to tell him when to change a sail.

“Phil Harmer, who won the last race, is the same. I will nearly always discuss everything with him. Why would you not with somebody who has more experience than you?

“So we will have a lot of consensus but fundamentally somebody has to make the decision and that’s me, somebody has to say, ‘right, we’re going to do this’. You live by the sword and die by it. ”

The suspicion is he would not want that harrowing bottom line any other way.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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