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.

Follow our sports coverage on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE


Company name: Klipit

Started: 2022

Founders: Venkat Reddy, Mohammed Al Bulooki, Bilal Merchant, Asif Ahmed, Ovais Merchant

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Digital receipts, finance, blockchain

Funding: $4 million

Investors: Privately/self-funded


Wolves 1 (Traore 67')

Tottenham 2 (Moura 8', Vertonghen 90+1')

Man of the Match: Adama Traore (Wolves)

Company Profile

Name: HyveGeo
Started: 2023
Founders: Abdulaziz bin Redha, Dr Samsurin Welch, Eva Morales and Dr Harjit Singh
Based: Cambridge and Dubai
Number of employees: 8
Industry: Sustainability & Environment
Funding: $200,000 plus undisclosed grant
Investors: Venture capital and government


- 5 wins in 22 months as pro
- Three wins in past 10 starts
- 45 pro starts worldwide: 5 wins, 17 top 5s
- Ranked 551th in world on debut, now No 4 (was No 2 earlier this year)
- 5th player in last 30 years to win 3 European Tour and 2 PGA Tour titles before age 24 (Woods, Garcia, McIlroy, Spieth)

Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

The burning issue

The internal combustion engine is facing a watershed moment – major manufacturer Volvo is to stop producing petroleum-powered vehicles by 2021 and countries in Europe, including the UK, have vowed to ban their sale before 2040. The National takes a look at the story of one of the most successful technologies of the last 100 years and how it has impacted life in the UAE. 

Read part four: an affection for classic cars lives on

Read part three: the age of the electric vehicle begins

Read part one: how cars came to the UAE


England's all-time record goalscorers:
Wayne Rooney 53
Bobby Charlton 49
Gary Lineker 48
Jimmy Greaves 44
Michael Owen 40
Tom Finney 30
Nat Lofthouse 30
Alan Shearer 30
Viv Woodward 29
Frank Lampard 29


Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Starring: Glenn Powell, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Anthony Ramos

Rating: 2.5/5

Day 2, Abu Dhabi Test: At a glance

Moment of the day Dinesh Chandimal has inherited a challenging job, after being made Sri Lanka’s Test captain. He responded in perfect fashion, with an easy-natured century against Pakistan. He brought up three figures with a majestic cover drive, which he just stood and admired.

Stat of the day – 33 It took 33 balls for Dilruwan Perera to get off the mark. His time on zero was eventful enough. The Sri Lankan No 7 was given out LBW twice, but managed to have both decisions overturned on review. The TV replays showed both times that he had inside edged the ball onto his pad.

The verdict In the two previous times these two sides have met in Abu Dhabi, the Tests have been drawn. The docile nature of proceedings so far makes that the likely outcome again this time, but both sides will be harbouring thoughts that they can force their way into a winning position.

UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets

Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War by Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly

Company Profile

Company name: Cargoz
Date started: January 2022
Founders: Premlal Pullisserry and Lijo Antony
Based: Dubai
Number of staff: 30
Investment stage: Seed

Our legal consultant

Name: Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.


Director: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Tim Blake Nelson, Sebastian Roche, Elpidia Carrillo
Rating: 4/5

The Afghan connection

The influx of talented young Afghan players to UAE cricket could have a big impact on the fortunes of both countries. Here are three Emirates-based players to watch out for.

Hassan Khan Eisakhil
Mohammed Nabi is still proving his worth at the top level but there is another reason he is raging against the idea of retirement. If the allrounder hangs on a little bit longer, he might be able to play in the same team as his son, Hassan Khan. The family live in Ajman and train in Sharjah.

Masood Gurbaz
The opening batter, who trains at Sharjah Cricket Academy, is another player who is a part of a famous family. His brother, Rahmanullah, was an IPL winner with Kolkata Knight Riders, and opens the batting with distinction for Afghanistan.

Omid Rahman
The fast bowler became a pioneer earlier this year when he became the first Afghan to represent the UAE. He showed great promise in doing so, too, playing a key role in the senior team’s qualification for the Asia Cup in Muscat recently.

Living in...

This article is part of a guide on where to live in the UAE. Our reporters will profile some of the country’s most desirable districts, provide an estimate of rental prices and introduce you to some of the residents who call each area home. 


Name: Qureos
Based: UAE
Launch year: 2021
Number of employees: 33
Sector: Software and technology
Funding: $3 million

Everything Now

Arcade Fire

(Columbia Records)

How to donate

Send “thenational” to the following numbers or call the hotline on: 0502955999
2289 – Dh10
2252 – Dh 50
6025 – Dh20
6027 – Dh 100
6026 – Dh 200


Company: Growdash
Started: July 2022
Founders: Sean Trevaskis and Enver Sorkun
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: Restaurant technology
Funding so far: $750,000
Investors: Flat6Labs, Plus VC, Judah VC, TPN Investments and angel investors, including former Talabat chief executive Abdulhamid Alomar, and entrepreneur Zeid Husban

DSC Eagles 23 Dubai Hurricanes 36

Tries: Bright, O’Driscoll
Cons: Carey 2
Pens: Carey 3

Tries: Knight 2, Lewis, Finck, Powell, Perry
Cons: Powell 3

PFA Team of the Year: David de Gea, Kyle Walker, Jan Vertonghen, Nicolas Otamendi, Marcos Alonso, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah, Sergio Aguero


Keep up with all the Middle East and North Africa athletes at the 2024 Paris Olympics

      By signing up, I agree to The National's privacy policy